One of the trickier issues to do with the whole Scottish devolution debate is what to do with England. The kneejerk reaction, to create an English Parliament or just let English MPs alone vote on English laws causes problems because of the sheer size of England. An English First Minister would arguably be more important than the UK PM on domestic issues, especially if the scale of devolution Scotland is expecting is extended throughout the UK.
Some suggest England be carved up into “regions” with old titles (Wessex, anyone?), but that in itself has an air of artificiality about it. There are some logical areas with their own recognised regional identity (London, which has a potential First Minister in its mayor) and the south-west, but it could still be tricky.
I can’t help wondering, as an outsider, whether this is a real problem or just a symbolic problem that needs to be dealt with as part of the Scottish thing. So here’s a mad thought: at the general election, let English constituencies vote, alongside their MPs, for a Lord Protector for England. Yeah, it’s a dramatic but historically remembered title (and not my first choice: I’d have gone originally for WitchFinder General!) for a broadly symbolic role. Give the Lord Protector the power to “hold” bills he/she feels to be unfair to England, and to require them to be voted on by English MPs alone. It’ll allow for English voters to see that the special place of England (as the biggest bit that pays for everything else) is recognised, without having to create a duplicate English assembly. In place, the UK government of the day will almost certainly make sure to work with the Office of the Lord Protector on draft legislation beforehand.
And it’ll be a bloody fun election, for the posters alone. Just a (mad) thought.
2024: As Scottish voters go to the polls in Scotland’s third general election since it voted Yes to independence in 2014, many will be pondering how things turned out in the Scottish republic after its first decade as an independent nation.
The fact that it is a republic will certainly have come as a surprise to those who voted Yes in 2014. The passing of Queen Elizabeth II in 2019 gave the SNP the moment to dust off their plan to complete the project, rushing through a bill in Holyrood creating the office of President, to be filled by parliament itself. After much negotiation, a beloved Scottish actor agreed to take the position, although only as a strictly non-party head of state. The headlines were variations of “President Who?”
Criticism of the SNP administration is rampant, although, for certain reasons, not as boisterous as one would expect. The decision of the government to create and generously fund a Scottish Broadcasting Service dedicated to “the promotion of Scottish culture and values” tends to ensure that the government point of view is always put across. That’s not to say that the opposition parties are denied access. They’re not. But casual remarks about them as “the English parties” by the odd presenter is not unusual. The fact that the majority of the board of governors of the SBS have SNP connections isn’t remarked upon too much.
Likewise, the decision of the Minister for the Protection of Scottish Culture and Heritage to generously subsidise private media organisations which promoted the culture also had an effect on how the media covers stories. Indeed, cultural subsidy of Scottish produced media, very much based on the French model, with requirements that a certain percentage of material broadcast be created in Scotland, is the norm, and is much welcomed by the Scottish arts community. The joke is that former “Taggart” cast members are getting very rich on the royalties. Once again, there are murmurings about journalists not being censored or directed as to what to write, but aware of what side their bread is buttered.
Then there is the Scottish Security Agency. Stating that the first priority of a state must be to protect its people, the post-vote government immediately moved to create an internal security agency, staffed initially by former Scottish MI5 and British Army intelligence operatives. The agency was given the mandate to fight crime, espionage and terrorism, but also to prevent threats to Scottish values. It’s this part of its charter which has been most controversial, especially when it emerged that the SSA had been keeping opposition MSPs under surveillance. The Director of the SSA, meeting with a parliamentary committee, caused both outrage and applause when he defended the practice, pointing out that the former unionist parties had actively fought the existence of the country, and so their loyalty to the country must surely be in doubt.
That attitude is more prevalent than many admit. Many former Labour, Lib Dem and Tory politicians in Scotland chose to move to England after the Holyrood Parliament made it illegal for Scottish office holders to hold UK passports. Likewise, only those holding Scottish citizenship alone can now vote in parliamentary elections. Indeed, to qualify for social welfare payments, a Scottish citizen is required to prove that they had voted.
The period between the Yes vote and Scottish entry into the EU and other international organisations allowed the SNP, almost uniquely without international restraint, to shape the state in their own image, pushing through constitutional changes with a slim parliamentary majority. As the president comes to the end of his term, Scots vote knowing that the next president will, under SNP legislation, have the power to assume executive power, an idea the SNP borrowed from the “staunchly democratic” Erdogan administration in Turkey.
Polls show that the outcome is balanced between the SNP on one side, and the Alliance for Change on the other, but questions must surely be asked as to the ability of the SNP to move the state apparatus in its own benefit, especially with the use of oil revenues to subsidise “strategic” industries, again with the proviso that the SNP government have a direct say in the hiring policy of those firms subsidised. In the universities, membership of the SNP is taken as a wise move, career-wise.
Writers note: this is a pisstake, not a prediction!
So, there’s a provocative headline, and deliberately so, but not for the reasons you’d think. There are some on the right who believe that Powell was right about immigration. I, for one, don’t, for the simple reason that immigration has made Britain a richer country. How that increased wealth has been shared out, or perhaps hasn’t, is another issue admittedly, but that’s not why I’m writing about Powell.
There’s an ugly fact about Enoch Powell that people don’t like admitting, and it is that he was genuinely popular at his height in the late 1960 and 1970s. Had he founded his own party, the cruel First Past The Post system would probably have strangled it at birth, but not before making both Labour and Tory leaders sweat. Ordinary people marched and wrote to Powell in their thousands after the “Rivers of Blood” speech. Many were undoubtedly what today we would call racist, but even more importantly, here was a politician whom many people, of many class and many tribal party loyalties, felt spoke for them and their values. Let’s not forget, either, that this was a time when the self-censorship of Political Correctness had not yet taken root, and where, for example, in 1964, a Conservative candidate had been elected in Smethwick on the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”.
The reality was that Powell forced the main parties to engage on the immigration issue. Some of that engagement was ugly, but it was never to the degree that he wanted. More importantly, it was enough to destroy the rise of the National Front in the 1970s.
Which brings us to UKIP: is Nigel Farage the Powell of the day? Personally, he isn’t a racist, but then neither was Powell. Is he the candidate of choice of racists? Probably. But that raises another uncomfortable point. What’s healthier? Racists feeling that the democratic system at least recognises them and their opinions, if not actually acting on them? Or driving a very substantial section of the electorate out of the democratic system?
There is a body of opinion in Western society that calls for public debate to only be limited to an acceptable and narrow strip of opinions, normally in the centre and centre-left, with some opinions not just being distasteful but actually banned from public discourse. It’s almost impossible to raise the immigration issue without someone playing the racist card. I’m not convinced that is a healthy way for a democracy to evolve. Indeed, it’s possibly a guaranteed way of reducing the legitimacy of that very system. After all, British elections in the 1960s and 70s, where opinions of the hard right and hard left were far more prevalent, had a considerably higher turnout than they do today.
Defence minister Simon Coveney TD has confirmed that Cork harbour will be the new home of Britain’s trident missile fleet if Scotland votes to expel them from Faslane naval base. “There’s nearly three thousand jobs associated with the servicing of the four Vanguard class submarines, and Cork is ideal. It’s a deep water port with straight access to the north Atlantic and did I mention it just happened to be in a certain parliamentary constituency?”
Modger Mole of the We’re-All-Going-To-Die Alliance has attacked the plan as a breach of neutrality. “Will somebody please think of the children!” Mole said in a 72 page press statement.
The minister clarified the neutrality position later in the day: “We’re observing what we call the Shannon protocol, which is where the country’s policy of neutrality is vigorously observed as long as it doesn’t cost us money. As we discovered in Shannon, many US troops liked buying duty free whiskey, Foster and Allen CDs and the odd Aran sweater, which activated the protocol. In this case we’re thinking of designating the new base as one of the old treaty ports, so that the submarines won’t be in Irish territory, but the paypackets will be. An Irish solution to an Irish problem.”
When asked as to whether it could result in Cork being laid waste by nuclear devastation, the minister replied “Yes, but how would you know?”
Announcing The Guardian’s new membership scheme (see here), Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has revealed that subscribers to the highest “Patron” brand of membership will be entitled, once a year, to a sexual encounter of their choice with him.
Rusbridger promised a “sweet, gentle” form of lovemaking, with the option of a good sob afterwards and a profound apology as standard for being a straight white man. Rusbridger has confirmed that gay sex will also be on offer as required, or for lesbians, the option of him preparing, instead of sexual pleasuring, a post-coitus meal involving pulses, seeds and grains, all organically sourced.
The imaginative initiative from the newspaper has put pressure on other newspapers to follow suit. The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre has offered to give any of his readers “a damn good thrashing, you know, the sort of spanking they won’t have received since Eton.” When asked whether he felt that offer would match The Guardian’s, he replied: “Offer? What offer? What are you talking about?”
It’s not often that I write about a show that I haven’t seen, but alas, I’ve only seen two episodes of AMC’s “Rubicon, created by Jason Horwitch and starring James Badge Dale. Nor, as it was made and cancelled in 2010, and only had 13 episodes, is it easy to legally find.
Rubicon tells the story of an analyst working for a mysterious think tank based in New York, which may be a front for a secret group manipulating world events. It’s a slow, slow burning and quirky, almost odd show, very much on the model of 1970s conspiracy movies like “Three Days of the Condor” and not to everybody’s taste. Yet I absolutely loved what I saw of it.
There’s an enormous elephant standing on the back of another elephant playing a trumpet loudly at the heart of the European defence debate, and nobody wants to admit that it’s there.
The truth is, nobody wants to die for Europe.
If Russia invades Estonia, or Poland, or Finland, there’ll be no shortage of young and not-so-young men and women in those countries who will rush to take up arms to defend their homelands and their families. The problem is that by that stage, it’s just too late. Deterrence has failed. Europe will be at war, and yes, at that stage, it is Europe. An armed incursion into any of those countries will have a huge economic impact on the rest of the European Union (and the Euro), and so defending them is not only honourable but selfishly vital.
Yet, up to that moment, it isn’t, and that’s the problem. We end up in a surreal situation where a Europe that is bigger, richer and spends more money on defence (Britain and France combined spend more on defence than Russia) is still cowed by Russia. Why? Because there is a Russian army. There’s no European army. Instead there are 28 national armies frittering away Europe’s defence spend into a very unimpressive bang for our buck.
Nor is there any reason to believe that a combined European army could come about as a result of the merging of existing European armies. For all sorts of reasons of history, national pride, etc, that isn’t going to happen. However, the problem still remains, and the chancelleries of Berlin, Paris and Warsaw know it. Europe has to have a defence capability that it is willing to deploy into harm’s way, and effectively a force of men and women who are emotionally separate from national identities.
To put it another way: consider two imaginary headlines in a future Irish newspaper:
“200 Irish soldiers die in fighting on Estonian border.”
“200 European Defence Force soldiers die in fighting on Estonian border.”
The first headline will cause outrage in Ireland, with screams about neutrality and why are we fighting in a country so far away, etc. The second will be met with a shrug of shoulders, even if some of those soldiers are Irish.
Why? Because if the European Defence Force was a voluntary organisation that Irishmen and women just happened to join (there’d be no shortage of volunteers) that would be seen as sad if they died, but not on the same level as Irish army soldiers being ordered into battle. It would almost be seen as a business arrangement. A de facto European Foreign Legion.
That’s the key.
The EU could allocate part of the defence budget of each member state to tender a separate private military contractor operated force for deployment on EU sanctioned operations. The member states could lease to the contractors equipment not usually available to private sector operatives (e.g. fighter aircraft) and the contractor could be bound by certain conditions in terms of human rights, sourcing supplies and employees from contributing EU member state suppliers. The force could also be required to have a rapid reaction disaster relief capacity for use both within and outside the EU.
The benefit is that the EU a) gets a military capacity, and b) recognises that there is sometimes a European interest which needs to be physically defended by a European asset. Such a force could also be used to replace EU national forces in places like Afghanistan.
Is it a fanciful proposition? Possibly. It’s a very radical idea to tender out elements of defence. But it does recognise a reality that Europe is an entity with common interests that need to be defended, yet there does not exist, at national defence level, a psychological buy-in to that. The US is leading the way, with mixed results, in private sector involvement with combat capacity in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is where we are today, and we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.