Friday, 31 March 2017

The Underminers Strike

One of the more depressing features of the devolution era has been the willingness and frequency with which the British nationalist parties have sought to undermine the Scottish Parliament.

This has manifested itself in a host of ways - from the Conservatives campaigning against the very existence of devolution to Scottish Labour working to undermine public confidence in the institution by refusing to send its best minds to Holyrood (for Scottish Labour, of course, thinking is a matter reserved to Westminster), and instead filling the chamber with a combination of the comically stupid and the terminally bitter. 

In the early days of devolution the Liberals, to be fair, did try and make it work. Albeit with no other real option, they sent the best they had to Holyrood. They developed some progressive and innovative legislation in the short period of Unionist rule within the confines set by their Scottish Labour partners that Scotland must never be tangibly different from Britain.

But even the Liberals have given up on devolution. With Scottish Labour turfed out of office, the Liberals made the awful mistake of appointing Nicol Stephen - a Unionist so hardline and bitter he made Ian Paisley look like a Shinner - as their leader. A hardline and bitter leader led to a hardline and bitter party, which would obstruct the governance of Scotland at every turn. The party has never recovered, and has become more obdurately Unionist over the years, even as they saw their number of constituencies collapse from 16 when the SNP took power, to three, to one. 

But recently the Unionists have been ramping up the idea that devolution itself is illegitimate. 

In the last parliament, Scottish Labour had for part of it a leader who actively campaigned against devolution. Their erstwhile deputy leader denounced the devolved institutions as "not democratic". Their Conservative partners contain in their ranks today not a few MSPs who would gladly abolish devolution tomorrow if it was possible, and the rest would accept any unilateral British abolition of devolution as a sign of being a Good Unionist. 

But it's only in the wake of fundamental disagreement between the Scottish and UK parliaments that the extent to which the Unionists will undermine the devolved institutions. Devolution is the settled will of the Scottish people, expressed in an overwhelming referendum victory 20 years ago, and reaffirmed in the now-discredited referendum of 2014.

That devolution settlement, promised by the British during the 2014 campaign, promised a powerhouse Scottish parliament in a near-Federal UK. However, the British government reneged on their promise to enshrine the Scottish parliament within the constitution within months of getting their No vote. 

And now, with Brexit, it's becoming clear that the Unionists are actively trying to delegitimise the Scottish parliament. The cross-party vote in Holyrood for Scotland to stay in the single market was denounced by the Unionists the moment the British regime announced -without consultation - that they were taking Scotland out of the single market.

It's taken 20 years, but we've finally come to the first major constitutional crisis between Westminster and Holyrood. And in that very first constitutional crisis - between the elected Scottish parliament and a Tory prime minister with no mandate from her party, much less the country - the Unionists have leapt to the defence of the Union Jack immediately. 

They have abandoned any remaining pretence of supporting a "strong Scottish parliament" in favour of a parliament entirely subordinate to the whims of the British government of the day. 

It is a dangerous precedent to set. But it's the one they have: the Scottish parliament is allowed to make decisions and take positions only insamuch as they do not come into conflict with the British government - and, where they do, the will of the British government must always prevail. 

I wonder how long it will be before the British government offers them their reward: the noise will soon start that it is democratically unacceptable for a party to govern Scotland for 14 years or more on less than 50% of the vote - and that powersharing between the pro-independence parties and the Unionist parties will be implemented, Stormont-style. 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017


Among the chaos that is British politics at the moment - a BBC journalist observed after yesterday's announcement that if he woke up in two years and found that a cat had become prime minister he wouldn't be remotely surprised - tomorrow's knife-edge elections in the Netherlands have rather passed the media by. 

This is a) because the British erroneously view the Dutch as nice Germans with funny accents whose politics are of no importance to the wider European Union; and b) they are utterly consumed with their selfish, mad Brexit.

It's an overlooking that couldn't be more wrong, as these are utterly vital elections not only for the Netherlands, but for Europe as a whole - and which themselves have Brexit implications. 

The current government (a grand coalition of the Labour party Partij van de Arbeid and the centre-right Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie) is the first Dutch government this century to complete its mandate. A grand coalition is not particularly unusual in the Netherlands (a previous coalition between the VVD and PvdA was led by a chap named, improbably, Mr. Kok). 

Voters will go to the polls to elect 150 members of the tweede kamer. Deputies will be elected by means of proportional representation, with the Netherlands being treated as one single, giant constituency. 

The incumbent VVD minister-president, one Mark Rutte, is seeking re-election. Aside from the PvdA, led by Lodewijk Asscher, the other main parties are Emile Roemer's Socialistische Partij, the small Christian-liberal CDA, D66, which believes in government by referendum, the Christian Union (basically Protestant ISIS), and the Green-Left party. We're then into wacky territory with the Reformed Party (Dutch Wee Frees), the Party for the Animals, and then there's a few mad parties that nobody will ever vote for (a pensioners' party, a party for Turks, and a party that wants to base the constitution on the Bible).

The PvdA, in common with all mainstream European centre-left parties, has collapsed in the opinion polls. Like PA.SO.K, like Scottish Labour and like Labour in Ireland, like the PS in France, they are in a state of crisis. 

Some opinion polls have them finishing as low as seventh place, with voters furious at their apparent relish at implementing austerity politics. And like in England and Wales, the voters who're fleeing from the PvdA in disgust at their apparent out-of-touch aloofness aren't going to a centrist party or a more purified socialist part, they're going to the far right. 

They're going, specifically, to the Freedom Party, PVV.

And like in Scotland with Scottish Labour, the PvdA isn't reacting to this haemmorhaging of electors by ditching its commitment to capitalist and austerity economics and returning to its socialist roots, but by borrowing the language of the far-Right. Asscher, shamefully, has started calling for intra-EU immigration to be curbed. 

In common with the slow death of other centre-left parties in the EU, however, it isn't working. Voters won't vote for a pint of skimmed milk when they can vote for a full-fat version. They won't vote for Maggie Curran screeching about foreigners when they can have Nigel Farage instead. 

And so, despite the shift in language, they're switching from the PvdA of Lodewijk Asscher to the PVV of Geert Wilders.

Geert Wilders is the most controversial politician in the Netherlands - possibly their most controversial ever, and I say that advisedly of a country which produced the late Pim Fortuyn - by some considerable distance. 

He is an orthodox populist bigot who espouses all the views one expects from the new breed of alt-Right (for "alt", read "neo", and for "Right", read "Nazi") politician in Europe and the United States. He's anti-Islam, wants to ban mosque construction, he's pro-Israel, and he works with parties such as the Front Nationale, FPÖ, Lega Nord, and the Vlaams Belang. He wants to ban women wearing the burqa, and supported a Muslim Ban before Donald Trump had ever heard of it.

The most-threatened politician in the Netherlands, Wilders has used his position as a Deputy in the tweede kamer to launch nationalist ideals into Dutch public life. His denunciation of foreigners (particularly Turks and Moroccans) makes Nigel Farage look like Patrick Harvie. 

Oh, and he's probably going to win the election. 

In a country long held up as an exemplary liberal and tolerant one, a Nazi is about to win the general election. He's exceptionally unlikely to be minister-president afterwards, as the other parties have pledged to build a cordon sanitaire around the PVV. But pledges aren't laws. And party leaders don't last forever. 

Now, winning a Dutch election is different from winning a British election. The winner tomorrow is likely to have fewer than 25 seats in the 150-member parliament. 

There was some glimmer of hope in the last couple of days that the PVV was falling behind the VVD in the opinion polls, which it had led for some time. 

But the astonishing behaviour of the Turkish regime in the last 48 hours, and the tantrum of its dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, towards the Netherlands, coupled with a series of Turkish riots against Dutch security forces in the aftermath of the EU-Turkey diplomatic crisis will only benefit one party - and it won't be the VVD. 

There's likely to be a short-lived, four/five-party coalition - probably the current government with the CDA, D66 and maybe the CU or GL propping it up if necessary. 

But the far-Right have been knocking at the door in Europe for a while. Emboldened by the success of Donald Trump in the United States and of Brexit in the United Kingdom, the far-Right has come close to success before. In Austria, they came within 350.000 votes of winning the (ceremonial) presidency. 

Geert Wilders isn't going to be in government tomorrow or any other time. But if he wins the elections, you'll find a lot of parties moving to adopt some of his policies. Sure, the PvdA isn't going to adopt a burqa ban any time soon. But if Turkey keeps on its present course, mightn't the VVD retaliate with some sort of sanctions on Turkish citizens immigrating to the Netherlands as a way of trying to attract PVV voters back to the mainstream?

And what a Wilders victory tomorrow will do to voters in France next month doesn't bear thinking of. They'll see a far-Right candidate winning the election and feel emboldened to support their own far-Right candidate. And where Jean-Marie le Pen got less than 20% of the votes in the second round of his own presidential runoff, Marine le Pen has a much better chance. 

A slim chance, still, to be sure. But the planets are aligning for her. And if Francois Fillon falls out of the race at this late stage, that benefits her more than any other candidate. 

There are dark days ahead for Europe. Maybe they are already here.