General Election 2015: The aftermath 

I’ve just woken up to the sun shining brightly over Loch Ness, as the final results of the General Election trickle in from around England.

At around 6am I headed to bed with only one Scottish seat left to declare, and its announcement looking likely to bring the total number held by the SNP to a staggering 56 out of 59 possible.

It’s important to reiterate just how incredible this outcome is. Some of the safest Labour seats in the UK have fallen to the SNP, mere months after a ‘no’ vote in an independence referendum. The seven seat stronghold in Glasgow has been swept aside with seemingly remarkable ease, colouring the city yellow – along with much of the rest of the country. Between them, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Tories now only have three representatives. The record breaking swings to the SNP were so large that they broke the BBC’s swingometer.

They weren't expecting that.
They weren’t expecting that.

Where once household political names would be relatively safe from such shifts in the political landscape by virtue of their recognisability, it seems like that prominence may only have served to aid in their downfall. Danny Alexander has gone, Jo Swinson has gone, the Scottish Labour Party leader has gone, and the former shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has gone, losing to a 20 year old politics student. It’s fascinating.

That right Jim, aye?
That right Jim, aye?

Even as the losses piled up, Labour Party members seemed unable to deal with the idea that they have fundamentally lost the confidence of the Scottish people – taking swipes at the SNP rather than asking themselves what the hell just happened. Scotland doesn’t belong to Labour, and the continuing failure to comprehend that by entitled politicians has doubtless played a significant part in their downfall. It wasn’t a ‘rise in nationalism’ that crushed Labour, as Ed seems to think. Labour have done this to themselves.

This isn’t just about standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories as part of Better Together (though that certainly has been an element), it’s about a complete inability on their part to speak up for Scotland in Westminster: instead, working as a branch office of the British Labour Party. The Scots are fed up of their hollow promises. My now ex-MP who held his seat for 15 years voted to invade Iraq, against any investigation into the war, for national ID cards, and even to raise University tuition fees in England. Typical of the toxic sort of politics that has no place in post-indyref Scotland. Oh, he’s also the one who said that he was ‘bored with politics‘ just last week. Jog on pal.

What Scotland Looked Like Before
What Scotland looked like before
What Scotland Looks Like Now
What Scotland looks like now

As the results came in over the night, there was a markedly different mood between my Scottish and English friends. The former were abuzz with excitement and anticipation, whilst the latter despondent and almost disconnected from the whole thing. It’s not hard to see why this might be, given the bleak choice that faced those on the left. Miliband wasn’t just a weak opponent, but one who has spent so much time trying to appease Middle England on issues like immigration that red has seemingly just become another shade of blue. If I was down south, I couldn’t have brought myself to vote for him, tactically or otherwise.

It may seem strange to be celebrating a landslide SNP victory in Scotland when the Tories are currently finalising a majority from votes in England, but for the Scots, having no real impact on those who hold power in Westminster has always been the case. Given this, seeing real change sweep across Scotland became the most exciting and important thing, not whether we got Cameron, Miliband, or some other cookie cutter Prime Minister that we didn’t vote for anyway. The ‘roch winds blew through the Great Glen of Scotland tonight’. The established political wisdoms no longer apply here, and it’s exciting.

For all of that though, when the dust clears we will still be faced with the decidedly grim prospect of another 5 years of Tory governance. It’s incredibly unlikely that we will see ‘some sort of federal offer’, as Boris Johnson has suggested. Instead, what we definitely will see is a concerted attack on civil liberties, with the Tory tongues already drooling at the prospect of scrapping the Human Rights Act. We will see more hateful rhetoric around immigrants, with the currently ludicrous and contradictory system being stacked even more against British citizens with non-EU spouses. We will see a referendum in 2017 that could ultimately rip Scotland out of the European Union against the wishes of the people, and directly in the face of that membership being hailed as one of the benefits of remaining in the Union.

Ultimately, last night was a clear statement of how politics in Scotland have shifted. There could yet be a revolution, but things are going to get worse before they get better. We have a fight on our hands.

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Election Night

It’s almost time. The polls are closing soon, and we’re just a disco nap away from a political all nighter.

I’ve never been as excited about watching the results of an election before, with the perhaps obvious exception of the independence referendum back in September. 

Last time around I didn’t even bother to vote in the UK General Election, as I didn’t see the point. I could have voted SNP, but with a general lack of enthusiasm in the rest of the country, it would have made no difference. Whatever I did with my pencil on polling day, Labour would win the majority of seats in Scotland, and the Tories (or whatever Governent England decided on) would inevitably get into power. 

It turned out to be more interesting than that of course, but by no means brought about a better outcome. Thankfully, things now are a bit different – at least North of the border. Finally, it feels like our votes might actually mean something, and the old duopoly of British politics has been broken.

I’ll be watching with interest to see if there’s a material difference in turn out between Scotland and the rest of the UK, but the real pleasure will be in something else. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing those in power surprised and afraid of an engaged electorate, and hopefully tonight that will be available in abundance. The old, complacent Labour dynasties who thought they were untouchable will be confronted with the harsh reality: that they have taken their Scottish constituents for granted for too long, and that the jig is up. The seats they felt so safe in before are now down to nothing more than an extremely shoogly peg.  

I will watch with whisky at the ready to toast the moment when those Labour MPs who voted to invade Iraq, raise tuition fees in England, introduce ID cards, and lie through their teeth about further devolution get punted out on their ear. It’s a day I never thought I would see come to the party’s Scottish heartlands, and one that I’m sure they never thought they would have to face either… But it has. Us Scots are a loyal people, but when you fuck us over we don’t forget it easily. Labour are about to find that out tonight. Come witness the entitled get swept away. 

Scotland and the 2015 General Election

Two weeks from today, those who come under the designation of British will take to the polls to vote for the Members of the UK Westminster Parliament. There are exceptions to this of course, such as those who have already voted by post or by proxy, and those who won’t see the point in participating at all.

The number of people who end up lumped into the inaccurately labelled category of ‘apathetic voters’ is substantial, a phenomenon common in mature political democracies the world over. This often elicits protestations that the disengaged and disaffected should spoil their ballots rather than abstain, or that there is some sort of moral imperative to cast a ballot due to the sacrifices of those that have come before. These tired old arguments come around like the seasons, and have little discernible effect. The simple truth for many is that there is little point in taking even a symbolic stand if you don’t believe there is any real prospect of change.

This time may be different.

It can be easy to forget in amongst the laboriously prosaic campaigning, but this time we find ourselves at a genuinely exciting moment in British political history – whatever the outcome of the election may be. The old assumptions and expectations have been broken down in a way that few people would ever have predicted.

One of my earliest memories relating to the general election that didn’t just involve getting the day off school was when Tony Blair’s New Labour party were seeking to gain power from John Major’s Conservatives in 1997. The Daily Record displayed a headline that stated: ’18 Reasons We Need a Fresh Breath of Blair’, one for each year the Tories had been in power.

Back then it seemed like there might be real change afforded by voting for Labour, but of course, that seems almost laughable now. What was on offer was nothing more than the illusion of something different; a choice between two barely indistinguishable parties, cloaked in rhetoric and false promises. This was just the other side of the coin in a bleak partisan system where nothing really transformative ever took place. Nowhere else was this more keenly felt than in Scotland, where each successive election just seemed to confirm that voting had no impact upon the actual result.

Tony Blair and George Bush

Now, things seem fundamentally different. The far right has inevitably smartened up enough to present itself as a credible threat in the form of UKIP and Nigel Farage, simultaneously managing to make the Tories appear more rational, whilst also pulling them to promise more extreme action. The Lib Dems have all but completely extinguished their relevance as anything other than a party designed to prop up whoever is in power at any given time and needs a hand – the Parliamentary equivalent of a temp agency. Labour are having an existential crisis, faced with a complete meltdown in their traditionally safe heartlands… and not only do we now have televised debates, but the Greens and Plaid Cymru are represented on there as well (though why Patrick Harvie wasn’t included in Scotland is still a mystery).

Nigel Farage

Even the ever dependable First Past the Post system, so desperately lauded by the mainstream parties for its ability to produce sizeable majorities (and therefore allegedly ‘stable’ governments) has failed to achieve even that basic task. The irony of that is compounded by the fact that not only do we have a popular SNP government in Edinburgh, but that they have a majority under a proportional system designed specifically to prevent such a scenario from taking place. Ouch.

Nicola Sturgeon

It should not be underestimated how fascinating all of this is, especially when we remember the situation that our American friends are still trapped in. However, sadly the details are at risk of being nothing more than window dressing if it doesn’t actually have the potential to produce real change for people. Whether the Greens are getting on TV a bit more often is irrelevant if it remains the case that they cannot garner enough nationwide support to be in a position to actually make an impact. For many across the UK, this is still the reality they are faced with when deciding how to vote. This is not the case for those of us in Scotland.

Scotland Westminster

One of the main underlying issues around the debate over Scottish independence was a dissatisfaction with the status quo; a rejection of the helplessness of the Westminster system that favoured those already in positions of power. People were fed up of being stuck with the Hobson’s choice between red or blue – though it is extremely generous of me to imply that the Tories were ever actually really an option. For many who voted yes, there was a crushing resigned fear that the result would signify a return to the old situation, but it hasn’t. Rather than doggedly stick to supporting a single party in a system that offers no alternatives, for once we are able to vote in such a way that not only will it actually count, but in a way that could also bring about a genuine shift in politics across the UK. Hell, arguably it’s already happened.

For the first time, our ballot feels like it actually matters again, and that those in Westminster are having to sit up and take notice. You can’t tell the Scottish people that they will be better as part of the United Kingdom and then expect them to not want a seat at the head table.

Image of Tony Blair and George Bush is in the public domain.
Image of Nigel Farage from Euro Realist Newsletter used under Creative Commons licence.
Image of Nicola Sturgeon from the Scottish Government used under Creative Commons licence.
Image of ‘Scotland Place – Westminster’ by me.

The Scottish Government’s Plans for a National Identity Database

Over the past couple of weeks, it has come to light that the Scottish Government are holding a public consultation on changes to the National Health Service Central Register (Scotland) Regulations 2006. 

The NHSCR is essentially a database that holds records on every single person in Scotland who was either born – or registered with a GP – in the country. This is tied to a unique number called the UCRN. Since the bulk of us need to see the doctor now and then – and don’t have private healthcare – that means pretty much all of us is on there. The changes would allow the register to collect some additional information (in the form of postcodes), and then share that data with other public sector organisations.

The proposed aims of these changes are as follows:

i. Improve the quality of the data held within the NHSCR

ii. Assist the tracing of certain persons, for example, children who are missing within the education system and foreign individuals who received NHS treatment in Scotland and left the country with outstanding bills

iii. Enable the approach to secure and easy access to online services (myaccount) to extend beyond services of Scottish local authorities and health boards to a wider range of public services

iv. Enable the identification of Scottish tax payers to ensure the accurate allocation of tax receipts to Scotland associated with the Scottish Rate of Income Tax.

So hold on, how on earth will changes made to a register held by the NHS help trace missing people, or to sort income tax? I’m glad you asked!

Data Sharing

Despite being buried away in a seemingly minor consultation in an innocuous piece of legislation, the proposals are actually pretty significant. In essence, they are seeking to use NHS records as a central location for a whole manner of other organisations to track details about people resident in Scotland.

On the face of it, the sheer dishonesty involved in appropriating a database which has been collected through public trust for other purposes is dismaying enough. However, there are some legitimate aims in there. After all, who could argue with attempting to trace missing children more efficiently? Given the sensitive nature of the information involved, I’m sure that we can expect that the other organisations which would gain access to view and share these types of personal details would be small, and tightly controlled. Right?

Wrong.

In the proposed new schedule, there are 98 different organisations listed who would get access to a core set of records. Amongst them are:

  • The Scottish Ministers
  • The Scottish Parliament
  • Revenue Scotland

Well, okay… not great, but hard to really justify spitting the dummy out over.

But wait, there’s more:

  • The Foods Standard Agency in Scotland
  • The Drinking Water Quality Regulator in Scotland
  • The Queen’s Printer for Scotland

Err… what?

That’s not all though!

  • Glasgow Prestwick Airport
  • Cairngorms National Park Authority
  • Scottish Canals

and… possibly the best one of them all:

  • Quality Meat Scotland

Yep, that’s right. Quality Meat Scotland.

Don’t believe me? See the full list for yourself.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I see absolutely no reason for these people to have access to my private information:

Scotsheep 2012 Kings Arms 053

I’m sure they’re wonderful human beings that do a great job, but when I go to see the doctor about a private matter, I don’t expect that information to then be available to anybody else, especially not a seemingly arbitrary selection of other public organisations.

Here’s some other possible data exchanges that I find curious:

  • The Forestry Commission sharing information on people with the National Library of Scotland (to find out which books are pulped most, perhaps?)
  • SQA (the exams people) sharing information on people with The Crofters Commission (finding under-qualified Crofters?)
  • Scottish Canals sharing information on people with The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh (?!?!)

There are other, more serious potential implications though:

  • The address information of vulnerable people being discovered, or exposed to disgruntled or abusive ex-partners
  • Details of people’s personal medical records (including mental health issues such as depression) being laid bare for others to access – with the potential for discrimination on that basis markedly high

These possibilities are purely hypothetical at this point, and would arguably be outside of the scope of the proposals in their current form. However, they illustrate the risks that are presented by linking up disparate data-sets in this manner. Once the UCRN is deployed across the public sector, there is little to prevent the above examples from being enabled. The consultation does not the risks that are presented by this, and haven’t given the impression of any sort of detailed consideration about either the privacy implications, or general public interest of this move.

One would expect there should be detailed regulations in place to control the sort of information transfer being described, yet the consultation remains remarkably quiet on the matter, stating only the following:

In each of the proposed amendments outlined above the minimum amount of data would be shared for the specific purposes outlined. The organisation will provide information on the individual they wish to identify and will receive equivalent information from the NHSCR and the principal reference number which is the UCRN. Where an organisation wishes to take advantage of this legislation it will also require to have in place data sharing agreements to ensure that appropriate processes are put in place and followed and that the data is used for the specific purpose identified.

That’s all very well and good, but there is a worryingly scant supply of details on the framework that would ensure these protections would be afforded, or what these ‘appropriate processes’ might be to prevent extra data being shared between organisations without justification. There is also nothing to stop this limited, and disparate set of aims (tracking missing children, establishing a more efficient online user account system for public services, and ensuring Scottish people pay income tax) from expanding in the future to share much more data.

This is a far bigger issue than it is being presented as.

Here is a summary of the issues:

  • The proposed changes would create a single national identity database in Scotland
  • There have been no adequate considerations of the privacy or data implications outlined in the consultation
  • There is no way to guarantee that the scope of the data to be shared would not increase in future, once the mechanism is established
  • The changes would undermine the public’s trust in the NHS, by using it as a vehicle to deliver these proposals

The consultation is woefully inadequate for the significance of these proposals, and the questions framed as if their premise is already universally accepted as a good thing. Almost laughably, instead of leaving space for any potential concerns, the consultation asks about suggestions for other organisations who the data should be shared with. That’s in addition to Prestwick Airport and Quality Meat, for the record.

The Scottish Government should halt the proposals, and instead move to recognise these changes for what they are: a significant development in our relationship with public sector organisations, requiring a full debate in Parliament, with the chance for both MSPs and the public to scrutinise them.

Read more from the Open Rights Group on this here.

Details on the Consultation itself is here. If you’re looking to do so, make sure and get yours in quick, as the closing date is the 25th of February.

Smith Commission Burning: Whit an Embarassment

The latest controversy to hit Scottish politics is a video showing some SNP councillors in Renfrewshire burning a copy of the Smith Commission report. Yup, it seems ridiculous even typing out the words.

Acting like some sort of idiotic school children, the councillors in question fumbled around outside of Renfrewshire House building to burn a copy of the report, declaring:

This is what we think about it. No real powers for Scotland again from Westminster. […] There you go Gordon Brown, cheers.

Before signing off with ‘Happy St. Andrews Day’.

The video was on Youtube, which the BBC have now grabbed and put on their site here, should you want to watch it. Personally, I wouldn’t bother. It’s embarrassing for anybody frankly, irrespective of what political affiliations they might have. To be honest, it shouldn’t come of all that much of a shock that councillors are acting like complete muppets; I thought that was par for the course in local government.

The reaction from both sides to this scandal has been revulsive.

Jim Murphy, ever desperate to be seen as a master orator decried the stunt on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 18.16.34

I’m not really sure what video he watched, since the twits couldn’t even light the bloody thing properly, so to say that it was torched is a bit of a leap. None the less, this response is patronising bullshit from a man who has divided his own party, and stood on a crate on streets around Scotland literally shouting in the face of people who disagreed with him. Platitudes like ‘Surely it’s time for Scotland to unite.’ simply betray the lack of concern or understanding for the actual political landscape in Scotland. The actions of a few morons do not equate to the position of the SNP, and it’s both boring and disingenuous to bring them together in such a way. They were suspended, for what it’s worth.

Another tweet doing the rounds came from Jenny Marra MSP (Labour):

Jenny Marra MSP

Leaving aside the use of the ridiculous term ‘The Vow’, which sounds as if it is the name of some daytime reality TV show, there’s no question that she’s right on one thing: the whole burning situation was both idiotic, and embarrassing.

What I find equally embarrassing though, is the idea that somehow the commitment set up by Gordon Brown was ‘promised, voted for and delivered’. What was promised is nowhere near what has been proposed in the Smith Commission (more detailed reading of what’s included is here), and then there’s that key word… proposed. The recommendations in the report will not be ‘delivered’ unless the UK Parliament votes to accept them, and it’s been made clear that that won’t happen until after the next General Election, if it happens at all.

The idea that everything is now fine and that politicians kept their promises and we should get back in our box and stop complaining is not just ludicrous, but insulting. Even if you think that the Smith Commission has been fantastic, and that control over road signs is the apex of devolution, it’s unthinkable that you would consider it to be ‘delivered’ until it’s signed into law.

I responded to the retweet of the above from aspiring Labour party candidate and solicitor Cat Headley to query the above. Instead of a reasoned, articulated response that one might expect, instead she chose to attack me directly – saying that I knew nothing about politics.

It boggles the mind that politicians are so blindsided by tribalism that they will dismiss people who question their statements, or query their position as nothing more than diddies that don’t know what the grown-ups are talking about anyway. Such staggering arrogance is precisely why people are fed up with the entitled attitude towards issues taken by those in political parties. The sooner this contemptuous notion is stamped out, the better.

Of course, stupid begets stupid. In response to the Jim Murphy’s comments, and the ludicrous idea that ‘The Vow’ has been delivered (‘something near to federalism’, remember?), elements of the other side have gone on the offensive.

10806318_624988780938909_6889663317495722681_n

This is in reference to the Labour Party’s decision to lead the UK into war in Iraq under dubious (and illegal) circumstances – specifically in relation to Jim Murphy’s support.

There’s been a lot of this floating about, and it’s quite simply a dumb response. One does not dismiss a stupid decision made by one group by upping the ante and equating it literally to another tragic political decision in this manner. It’s petty, lazy, and smacks of die hard factionalism. Frankly, if anything is offensive, it isn’t the burning of the Smith Commission report in the bin, it’s the comparison between Jim Murphy’s idiotic words and a war which has resulted in the loss of an inestimable amount of lives.

The words of Jenny Marra are correct: This incident, and the approach from all sides has been an embarrassment to the Scottish people. Not because of real debates that are being had, but because of the blatant spin, arrogance, and political opportunism demonstrated by all sides in response.

Get a grip.

 

Why I Have Joined the SNP

SNP Logo

I have never even considered joining a political party before this past week, but today I became a member of the SNP.

Party political membership is always something that seemed unnecessary, and opposite to my principles. Why restrict your activism and ideology blindly to the views of the narrow? It seemed like it closed down the possibility for change and revolution rather than enabled it. Rightly or wrongly, party membership is something that is often looked down upon by those who consider themselves free thinkers – including myself.

The past two years has seen an incredible process take place, with more political engagement than ever before – something that was kicked off by the determination of the SNP. Whether you love or loathe Alex Salmond, under his leadership the SNP in Scotland has fought for a commitment to free education, a protection from arbitrary taxes introduced by Westminster (the bedroom tax), and overall a greater voice for Scottish people.

The result of the referendum has made me question in what ways my passion for social justice has been tempered over the past few years, and what I can do to do more in future. I’ve watched as other crestfallen Scots have signed up for membership of the SNP, and I have thought long and hard about whether I should do the same – analysing my own prejudices and fears.

These are the two listed aims in the constitution of the Scottish National Party:

(a) Independence for Scotland; that is the restoration of Scottish national sovereignty by restoration of full powers to the Scottish Parliament, so that its authority is limited only by the sovereign power of the Scottish People to bind it with a written constitution and by such agreements as it may freely enter into with other nations or states or international organisations for the purpose of furthering international cooperation, world peace and the protection of the environment.

(b) the furtherance of all Scottish interests.

In their code of conduct for members, there is a number of other statements, such as:

‘No member may make racist statements in any context’

and

‘Every member has a responsibility not to discriminate in his or her conduct on the ground of race, colour, gender, religious belief or non-belief or sexual orientation’.

It’s time to nail my colours to the mast. These are aims and values I am happy to sign up to.

If we are forced to participate in the party political process, I want to be aligned with one that will fight for real change. By joining the growing swell of people making their commitment to these aims this week (and creating the third biggest political party in the UK so far), I’m determined not to let the dream for a better country fall by the wayside. Membership will also allow me to more effectively challenge the policies of the SNP with which I disagree (like minimum alcohol pricing).

Next year in May we vote in a UK wide general election. It’s time to give Labour a hammering, and send a message that the way things are just now is unacceptable. This isn’t the end of the story.

Join us here.