Monday 28 May 2012

Yes, Scotland

The campaign to win Independence for Scotland has formally begun.  Last Friday saw the launch of this new campaign - Yes Scotland.    Since the referendum is more than two years away, this was a fairly low key event.  Only two of the speakers were active politicians, Alex Salmond from the SNP and Patrick Harvie from the Greens.  This is important for a successful outcome.  Though the SNP are clearly the main party campaigning for independence, they are not the only party.  The Greens in particular could have a very significant role to play in convincing enough Scots to vote Yes.  It is also clear that though the Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties will remain staunchly anti independence, this is not true of all of their voters.  So the Yes, Scotland campaign needs to appeal to as wide a range of people as possible.
Independence is not something to decide on lightly.  It is not just for today, but for the long, long term.  Therefore we need people to think carefully about what independence might mean - for them, their families and for future generations.  Which is one of the many very good reasons for the two year timescale before the referendum.  A majority of Scots need to be convinced that independence is the best option for Scotland.  Preferably as large a majority as possible.  Already commentators and bloggers are advancing their particular reasons for voting Yes to Independence.  You can find a couple here and here.  Gerry Hassan has also chipped in with a more considered list here.
Now I don’t want to demean any of these reasons, some of them I agree with myself.  However they do seem to miss the fundamental reason for wanting independence.  Independence will not in itself bring about any of the wish lists mentioned above, nor those of anybody else.  What independence will do is ensure that it is us the people living in Scotland who get to decide what policies to pursue, for good or bad.  You either trust us - the people living in Scotland in all our diversity - or you don’t.  It’s pretty simple really.  Who should decide on the key issues affecting Scotland - the people who live here or people living elsewhere in the UK?  I am clearly with the Yes, Scotland campaign and this simple statement - The people who live in Scotland are best placed to make the decisions that affect Scotland.  I would urge all my fellow citizens living in Scotland to join in the Yes, Scotland campaign.  Go to their website here, and sign the declaration.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Palestine - The Struggle for Justice Continues

15th May was Al Nakba Day, when Palestinians and their supporters throughout the world remember the”Catastrophe” that befell Palestinians in 1948.  For the founding of the State of Israel in that year came at the intentional expense of the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes.  A tragedy that has remain unresolved to this day.   I have written about Al Nakba before and this post is mainly about links to relevant pieces elsewhere that help to explain both Al Nakba and the current state of Israeli - Palestinian relations.
Starting with Al Nakba,  Philip Weiss’ ever interesting site, Mondoweiss has this piece written by the Palestinian Council of Human Rights Organisations.  The title of the article explains the piece perfectly - For Palestinians, the Nakba has been perpetuated for decades.  The following quote succinctly illustrates this ongoing facet of the Nakba.

“While the term Nakba is seen as a reference to the murder, exile and devastation of the 1948 war, in reality, it could just as easily be used to describe the current belligerent occupation. It is an appropriate term for nearly six decades of demolitions, internment, the appropriation of land and the refusal by Israel to recognise and respect the basic human rights of the Palestinian people. It could very easily be used to describe the denial of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people. The Nakba did not end in 1948. The mass forcible transfer that occurred during and in the aftermath of the war was only the first stage in Isreal’s illegal policy of displacement that is being implemented with equal determination and precision to this day.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has another Palestinian perspective on the Nakba.  This one is written by Dr. Hanan Ashrawi who is a member of the PLO Executive Committee and head of the PLO’s Department of Culture and Information.  Her piece is particularly interesting as she uses this article to demonstrate conclusively that in 1948 Palestine was, “a land with a vibrant society and rich culture.  Palestine was one of the most developed Arab societies, boasting one of the healthiest economies under the British mandate and a high school enrolment rate second only to Lebanon”    Much of the work in rediscovering this history has been researched by Israeli historians as Dr Ashrawi acknowledges.
The third article on the Nakba is by Lisa Goldman, a Canadian journalist who for many years lived in Israel.  Her piece is entitled On the Nakba, Jewish identity and memory.   This is a very moving article in which she tries to confront the Nakba from a Jewish perspective and in particular the memory of the Holocaust.  Her key point is the different way in which the aggressors, the perpetrators of the injustice have reacted.  As she puts herself, “The people who instigated the genocide of the Jews have acknowledged their crimes, asked forgiveness, made restitution payments, outlawed Nazism and made Holocaust studies part of their school curriculum. One can never really apologize for committing genocide, but acknowledgment and accepting responsibility are essential. Otherwise it’s not possible to move on.

Very few Israelis and / or Jews are willing to accept and acknowledge the pain caused the Palestinian people by the Nakba. We deny, deflect, turn away, ignore. We get angry. We accuse those amongst us who wish to remember and record, like Zochrot, of undermining the state of Israel or denying Jews their right to self-determination. Or of being traitors. How can the act of remembering be a betrayal?”

Lisa Goldman’s article appeared in +972 a group blog about Israel and Palestine.  As did the following article by Noam Sheifaz, an Israeli journalist who looks at the difficulties facing those, Israelis and Palestinians who want to challenge the status quo.  He argues that for the vast majority of Israelis the status quo is preferable to all other options.  So talk and arguments about possible political solutions are a waste of time.  The need instead is to focus relentlessly on exposing the reality of the current situation as it affects Palestinians.  As he puts it, “Instead of debating far-away solutions, political energy should be devoted in constant opposition to the military occupation of the West Bank and the isolation of Gaza, and to all forms of segregation and oppression that come with them. In other words, it should be directly aimed at the status quo and all those benefiting from it.”
In this he is supported by another regular writer on Israel and Palestine, Jerry Haber, an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the US.  He runs his own blog - The Magnes Zionist, where this article appeared.  Dismissing the two-state solution as something that was never alive, he comes to the same conclusion as Noam Sheifaz.  Namely that we all need to focus on the current injustices and use all non-violent tactics available to put pressure on Israel.  He puts it thus, “During the very long night ahead of us, the joint struggle of people from Israel/Palestine and from around the globe should continue to focus on civil and political equality, until more come to realize that the problems between the two sides are foundational. Non-violent tactics that exert pressure on both sides, including boycotts and sanctions,  should be considered and adopted if they will further the aforementioned goals.” 
 I end with another piece from +972 magazine.  This is a review by Yossi Gurvitz, a 40-year old Israeli journalist, blogger and photographer.  In it he reviews the latest book by Shlomo Sand, entitled The Invention of the Land of Israel.  It seems to be a very interesting book and I hope the English translation comes out soon.  According to Yossi Gurvitz, Sands sets out to expose the falsity at the heart of the Zionist project - the notion of the Land of Israel as a physical, geographic place.  A key quote from Gurvitz’s review, “The heart of Sand’s thesis is the intentional confusion in Zionism between the Halachic – Jewish law – concept of Eretz Israel (“The Land of Israel”, EI) and the concept of a place which is under Jewish sovereignty, and yearning for such a place. “Eretz Israel” is, originally, a Talmudic concept – not a biblical one – which delineates it as a territory that imposes extra religious obligations on Jews living in it, which Jews living outside of it are unburdened of. Talmudic legend grants EI various mystical qualities (wisdom, beauty and other nonsense which could only be written by people who haven’t lived here), but does not refer to EI as the “homeland ” of the Jews, and neither does it require them to live in it.
Judaism is of no homeland. It is a religious movement which can exist anywhere, whose last territorial anchors were cut down with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. Were contemporary Judaism what Zionism later made it out to be – a people living in their homeland – it would have suffered a terrible shock. And while many were horrified by the destruction, and while a few haunting mourning poems were written in Greek or Aramaic, Judaism survived the destruction of the Temple amazingly well.”   This is still the case today as Judaism continues to prosper throughout the world and most Jews do not live in Israel and have no intention of ever doing so.

Monday 14 May 2012

More Electoral Shocks for the Austerians

After the recent triumph of François Hollande in France and the success of the anti austerity parties in Greece comes another major reverse for those in favour of austerity.  In Angela Merkel's homeland her party, CDU has just suffered a calamitous defeat in North Rhine Westphalia, the most populous of the German Länder.  Her party's vote declined by over 8%, while the main opposition party, the SPD saw their vote share rise.  The SPD will now continue to run the state in coalition with the Greens, but this time with an overall majority.  The photo above shows the victorious Hannelore Kraft the leader of the SPD in North Rhine Westphalia.

This result while a clear set back for Angela Merkel, does not in itself weaken her in the Federal Parliament in Berlin, where she continues to enjoy a clear majority with the support of the FDP.  However it is a further indication of the strength of those opposed to further austerity.  It is worth pointing out that this was not a simple anti incumbent vote as the SPD and the Greens were the governing coalition in Düsseldorf.  Most of all it is further confirmation that the tide is turning in favour of concrete measures across Europe to promote growth.  None of the main parties anywhere is arguing against the need to bring down national debt or to reduce excessive government deficits.  But more and more political parties and groups are vociferously arguing for a longer timetable for debt and deficit reduction and the absolute need to get all European economies growing again.  The situation in Spain continues to worsen with one major bank already effectively nationalised.  Will Greece have a national unity government by the end of today or will there have to be fresh elections next month?  Uncertainty and worry everywhere, with more and more families suffering real reductions in their living standards.  Austerity is manifestly not working.  This week's meeting between François Hollande and Angela Merkel may give us the first indications of whether and how far Merkel is prepared to move.  Alas, we live in interesting times.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

The Beginning of the End for Austerity?

The election results in France and Greece give rise to hope that at long last the tide may be about to turn in the Eurozone.  There is most certainly a pressing need for the Eurozone countries to get out of the neo-liberal austerity driven mess they are in.  Paul Krugman and Martin Wolf have both recently published interesting articles demonstrating that austerity does not and is not working.  Krugman’s article is here and Wolf’s article is here.  Martin Wolf’s research shows conclusively that: “In all, there is no evidence that large fiscal contractions bring benefits to confidence and growth that offset the direct effects of the contractions.  They bring exactly what one would expect: small contractions bring recessions and big contractions bring depressions.”  Would the Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Osborne take note.
The great worry, loudly and constantly repeated is that the markets and in particular the bond markets will punish countries that do not stick to austerity measures.  Yet there is no evidence that the bond markets reward austerity.  Ireland has ruthlessly pursued a massive fiscal contraction over the past few years with no benefits in terms of access to the bond markets.  Spain is now in a similar situation.  The new very right wing government has embarked on a similarly ruthless policy of fiscal contraction and its reward?  The bond markets have reduced Spain’s credit rating even further.
It is not hard to see why, with all these austerity measures where is the growth in the Spanish economy going to come from?  And without growth how can Spain repay its existing loans?  It is a downward spiral which benefits no-one.  Even the markets are telling everyone that austerity is not the answer.  Or at least that austerity on its own is certainly not the answer.
This is where the election of François Hollande as the new French President could be crucial.  Along with the Greek voters comprehensively rejecting the pro austerity parties in their general election.  These two countries are not alone.  In the Netherlands the coalition government collapsed after a right wing party rejected further austerity measures.  A general election will now be held later this year.  And the two Mario’s have added their voices to the call for measures to stimulate growth.  I refer to Mario Monti the technocrat Prime Minister of Italy and Mario Draghi the President of the ECB.  Even the European Commission is beginning to stir as Olli Rehn the Economics Commissioner has added his voice to the demands for a rethink on austerity.   Rehn is calling for a European Investment Pact to boost growth in the Eurozone.  
What is interesting about these new voices calling for a programme for growth is that that they are coming from all sides of the political spectrum.  It is not just the socialist Hollande who is demanding a rethink, but centrist and even right wing politicians.  Even the ultra right wing Mariano Rajoy in Spain must be desperate for some change in policy given the disastrous state of the Spanish economy and the way it is being punished by the markets.
We must not allow ourselves to get carried away by all this.  As the title of this post suggests we may be at the beginning of a move away from neo-liberal rigidity, but there is a long way to go.  As expected Angela Merkel has already announced that there is to be no back tracking on the fiscal pact.  However the forces aligning up against her and her ilk are getting stronger and stronger and as I mentioned earlier, it cannot be dismissed as coming from the usual suspects on the left.  No one expects the Eurozone to suddenly change gear completely.  Austerity measures will remain, but their force may be reduced somewhat and the timescale may be revised.  The most we can hope for in the immediate future is that some concrete measures are put in place to stimulate real growth throughout the Eurozone.  The battle is only beginning but at long last credible voices are emerging to challenge the dead end doctrine of neo-liberalism.

Saturday 5 May 2012

And the Winner is - SNP

The recent local elections in Scotland produced one clear winner - the SNP and one clear runner-up - Labour.  Below is the final tally (with 3 councillors from Dunoon still to be elected) of councillors won by each party, with changes from 2007 in brackets.

SNP 424 (+61)
Labour 394 (+46)
Conservatives 115 (-28)
Liberal Democrats 71 (-95)
Greens 14 (+6)
SSP 1 (-)
Others 201 (+8)
So not only did the SNP secure the most seats, they also enjoyed the biggest gains.  These figures come from the Scot Goes Pop blog and the full article can be read here.  This is by any standards quite a remarkable achievement.  To get an indication of just how good this performance is by the SNP, we need look no further than the Tory party.  In the local elections in England and Wales the Tories did very, very badly losing over 400 councillors.  Many Tories have tried to excuse this poor showing by pointing out that the Tories have been in government in Westminster for two years and that this is just a mid-term blip.  Yet the SNP has been in government in Scotland for five years and is still making gains!
If you relied on the mainstream media, including alas the BBC, for your information you could be forgiven for failing to spot this great SNP victory.  For all the press and the BBC have gone out of their way to portray the results as a victory for Labour and a shattering setback for the SNP.  For details of the misleading, if not outright lying by the media see this post from Wings Over Scotland.  
Not only have the media tried to present the outcome as a setback for the SNP, they have ferociously tried to somehow turn these local elections into a dress rehearsal for the referendum on Independence.  The Daily Mail for example had that well known ultra Unionist, Gerald Warner screaming:  “If they can’t take Glasgow, how can the Nationalists hope to rip Scotland out of the Union?”   Quite why Glasgow should be singled out as opposed to the overall results in Scotland as a whole is never quite explained.  Even in Glasgow, which Labour did retain, the SNP still managed to improve their position on the council.  If this is the best the Unionists can come up with then they are in serious trouble.  For this is the none too subtle subtext to all the media reporting.  Talk up the Unionist vote, even at the expense of the truth.  We have reached the sorry state that arch right wing Tories are now cheering Labour victories.  Anything to preserve the Union.  Whether lying and scaremongering is the best way to save the Union is debatable, but that they have to resort to it does show how desperate the Unionists are.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

What's the Point of Local Councils?

This Thursday is election day here in Scotland for our local councils.   As is the norm there has not been much coverage in the media.  There are very few, hardly any, genuinely local media outlets these days.  So any coverage is framed in national terms.  The national leaders of the main parties get interviewed and each party produces a national manifesto.  A national manifesto for local elections!  The results too will mainly be analysed for what they tell us about the respective national standings of each party.  And all this on an expected very low turnout.  

The fact that relatively few people bother to vote should lead to some serious questioning about our system of local government.  All the main parties pay lip service to local government and some occasionally wax lyrical about a vibrant local democracy as a sign of a healthy society.  But then do precisely nothing about it.  So what is wrong with our current set-up for local government?  I have two major criticisms of the present regime - it is neither local nor does it allow for proper government.

Local can of course mean different things to different people. For those of us who live in one of our four cities, then the local council probably does fairly accurately reflect most people's notion of local.  Even though there are distinct areas within each city, for example, Lochee or Broughty Ferry in Dundee, most people think of Dundee as the place where they live.  However this is most unlikely to be the case in most of the other local councils.  Take our neighbouring council - Angus, which though smaller in population is very much larger area wise.  Though there is some sense of belonging to the old county of Angus, most of the population are much more likely to identify with their own burgh, and there are seven of them in Angus.  The good people of Carnoustie for example are probably not that interested in what happens in Montrose or Brechin.  Yet the one single council is responsible for all services throughout the county.  It must be even worse in Highland Council, which covers half the landmass of Scotland!  Just how this one council can be local for both the citizens of Fort William on the west coast and the citizens of Wick near the northernmost part of the mainland is beyond me.  And probably beyond the residents of these two lovely burghs.  For most people I would imagine that local refers to the place or immediate area in which they live.  And our current councils do not, other than the four cities, represent this level of localness.

As regards government, there are two aspects to this which seem to me to be crucial.  The first is the power to raise money and the second is the power to decide on what services, if any, should be provided.  This to me is what government is all about - taking key decisions on the raising and spending of taxes.  Under our current system, local councils have very little of either power.

Something like in the region of 80% of the funding for local councils comes directly from central government in Edinburgh.  The remaining 20% or so is mainly raised via the council tax, a levy on property which is deeply unpopular and has been frozen for the past five years, and is to remain frozen for the next four years.  Which means that effectively local councils have no say whatsoever in how much money they can raise.  Not much in the way of local decision making here.

It is pretty much the same when it comes to the services provided by our councils.  The two main ones which take up most of the money and employ most of the staff, are Education and Social Work.  In both cases, councils have very little, if any, scope for decision taking.   Dundee Council for example cannot decide to start primary schooling at the age of seven instead of five.  It cannot decide to reduce the school leaving age to 14.  All the key decisions relating to schools and social work are taken at the national level.  This includes class sizes, qualifications for staff and salaries.  Now nearly all of this is a good thing.  Hardly anyone in Scotland wants 28 different schooling systems or social work standards.  This then begs the questions - why do we continue to pretend that they are in any real sense local decisions?  It doesn't happen in health, where we have a national health service for the whole of Scotland.  We are also about to create a single police and emergency service for the whole of the country.  Local councils have in reality very little discretion in education or social work.  Their main task is to manage what is in effect a national service in their area.  

Why not recognize this reality and hive these two services off from local councils and entrust them to a national body.  There would then be no need for councils to cover such a large area as the Highlands or Angus for example.  We could return local government back to the places people feel is local to them.  Shorn of education and social work, they could be given the responsibility to raise most of their funds.  Perhaps reversing the current situation to one in which local councils raise 80% of their funds and only 20% comes from central government.  Councils could then have real decision making powers over issues that matter to their residents.  Let us bring back real government to our councils and let us make them truly local.