In Westminster the debates on the Queen's Speech go on and the SNP representatives, having made themselves somewhat objectionable by their behaviour in and out of the Chamber, are settling down though they will insist on wearing a white rose, which they insist is that of Scotland while others suggest might be of Yorkshire. We suspect that discussion will run on and on.

One of the speakers in the debate was Stephen Gethins, MP for North East Fife, an almost unexpected victory for his party, and the SNP spokesman for Europe. He is also a man who has spent his career in the NGO sector, much of which receives money from the EU. As has been pointed out on this blog, the SNP stand on "Europe" is somewhat incoherent and, at present, they seem to be against the IN/OUT referendum, with Nicola Sturgeon, the incoming First Minister maintaining that it would be undemocratic to impose the results of that referendum on Scotland.

There are two points that Ms Sturgeon seems to have ignored. One is the obvious one that the people of Scotland had voted decisively to stay in the United Kingdom and did so in the full knowledge that there might soon be an EU referendum, which will be done on a national and not regional basis. Unless Ms Sturgeon is arguing that the people of Scotland are uniquely stupid and, therefore, their opinion can be set aside as being of no real value backed by no understanding, she had better accept that. We may add that if Ms Sturgeon really knew Scottish history and the history of Scotland in the world, she would realize how very untrue that is.

Secondly, as we have suggested before, it is not impossible that in the IN/OUT referendum Scotland as a whole will also vote for the UK to come out of the European Union. What then? What will Ms Sturgeon say then?

Back to Mr Gethins, who made a very creditable maiden speech, observing all the rules, thanking the Speaker for the help the new boys and girls on the block had been given and referring with admiration though obvious political disagreement to his predecessor in North East Fife, Sir Menzies Campbell.

He then enumerated the various developments in his constituency, all of which require international trade, something we would have even outside the EU but, clearly Mr Gethins thinks that because the products of the excellent distilleries in his constituency need to be and will be sold, we ought to start thinking about a common EU defence policy. Not a particularly logical thought.

However, it seems that not everything in the garden is lovely:

None of us on the SNP Benches is saying Europe does not need reforms. The common fisheries policy has had a devastating impact on communities across my constituency in the East Neuk of Fife and elsewhere across Scotland, as my colleagues will testify. Similarly, the expensive practice of moving the Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg every month defies any logic in these times of straitened budgets.

Gosh, really? You mean the devastation that the CFP wrought on the British fishing industry is in the same category as the, admittedly ridiculous, monthly circus of moving the European Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg (which is also written into the treaties, incidentally)? Do Mr Gethins's constituents know that his thinking is along those lines?

More to the point, exactly how does Mr Gethins propose to reform the fisheries policy in any meaningful way while we stay in it and in the EU?

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Time to take stock

It has taken us a little while to take stock of the post-election situation and for that we apologize to our readers. A rather boring election campaign was followed by an exciting election night and the results were unexpected in many quarters. For those of us who predicted a small Conservative majority the sight of so many commentators and pollsters with, not to put too fine a point on it, egg on their faces, was quite a pleasure.

Still, one needs to get over that and look at what is happening. A Conservative government, with no coalition partner who can be blamed for things possibly going wrong is something that will take some getting used to. In the first place, that means an IN/OUT referendum on the European Union as it was made clear in today's Queen's Speech.

My government will renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union and pursue reform of the European Union for the benefit of all member states.

Alongside this, early legislation will be introduced to provide for an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union before the end of 2017.

The SNP are already making noises in favour of another Scottish "independence" referendum, should the UK, as a whole, vote to leave (that is when they are not breaking Parliamentary convention by rushing in to occupy long-standing members' places and applauding their leader for making a fairly pedestrian speech). What remains unclear is whether that demand would still be made if the vote in Scotland was clearly in favour of Brexit - a word we must get used to as it will be around a lot.

The SNP's situation is rather curious. Out of all the parties it has done best of all under the first past the post system yet it has, though rather half-heartedly, shown some support for those who are calling (as it happens after every election) for a reform of the system towards some form of proportional representation. The truth is that a national PR system will leave the regional parties like the SNP and Plaid Cymru nowhere while a regional PR system will not satisfy those who think that electoral reform will get rid of anomalies. After all, it can hardly be considered as fair to have a party with 56 seats on 4.7 per cent of the vote when the Liberal-Democrats have 8 on 7.9 per cent and UKIP only e on 12.6 per cent, if one considers that the national vote is what matters. Those who prefer a system that links electors directly with the representative they vote for, that is their MP accept these anomalies, knowing full well that there is no such thing as a completely fair system. The truth is that fairness in politics is well nigh impossible to define, let alone put into place.

It is interesting to compare the SNP votes with those cast in the independence referendum of last year, particularly as we hear a great deal about this being a sort of a second referendum without anybody saying so. In fact, the question of Scottish independence was not raised during the electoral campaign and it is hard to prove that all those who voted for the SNP did so because they believed in it.

In fact, the SNP vote, at 1,454,436 was lower than the Yes vote in the referendum, 1,617,989, let alone the No vote at 2,001,926. The turn-out, at 71.1 per cent was higher than UK average at 66.1 per cent but considerably lower than the referendum turn-out at 84.59 per cent. It is, in the opinion of this blog, hard to prove that the overwhelming SNP success on May 7 was really a vote for Scottish independence, which was roundly rejected in the referendum.

So much for that. What of the SNP's view on the European Union, the country's membership of it and, above all, on the common fisheries policy. This blog has maintained for a long time that the SNP's understanding of the common fisheries policy is faulty to put it mildly (here and here among others).

It would seem that others have noticed problems as well. David Torrance, a well known historian, biographer and commentator on Scottish affairs wrote two days ago in The Herald that the SNP's position on staying in "Europe" was incoherent.

Europe is one of those issues on which the SNP has an apparently simple position (pro) but which, on closer examination, becomes a bit of a mess. Shortly before last year's European Parliament elections Mr Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon et al started inserting little caveats into their pronouncements, largely to the effect that the European Union wasn't perfect, "far from it".

But to my knowledge there's been no attempt to explain in what way they would help make it a more perfect union. Indeed, there's little evidence the SNP has done any serious thinking about the EU since around 1988, when it committed to "independence in Europe", a slogan rather than a policy.

Even that didn't make an awful lot of sense: why so alive to sovereignty within the UK but relatively relaxed when it comes to the EU?

But it goes deeper than that, for the roll call of things the SNP doesn't like about Europe is quite long: the single currency, Common Fisheries Policy and closer fiscal integration, which the present First Minister has several times made clear she doesn't support. Even the European Convention on Human Rights (which exists separately from the EU) has come under fire from Nationalists, chiefly its ruling against a blanket ban on voting rights for prisoners.

Then there's the rhetoric. SNP press releases rail against the "Tory obsession with ripping Scotland and the rest of the UK out of the EU" and Scotland being "dragged out" against its will. Yet when Unionists deployed similar language to describe Scotland vis-Ã -vis the UK they were accused of being alarmist and melodramatic. Similarly, it's difficult to argue that Scotland leaving a highly-integrated UK would somehow be hassle free but the UK exiting a much looser union would "threaten" jobs and the economy, yet that's exactly the SNP's position.

The one thing we do know (for the time being) is that Alex Salmond will campaign anywhere and with anyone for the UK to stay in the EU and that he thinks he is a much better man to lead the IN campaign than the Prime Minister. Well, that is until he changes his mind again.

On one issue Mr Salmond is right in the article linked to above: Mr Cameron has not so far mentioned "replacing the Common Fisheries Policy which is a key failure of the European Union and has never done anyone any good!". The trouble is that Mr Salmond has no clear ideas of what he wants to replace the CFP with and how would he go about doing so within the European Union where any real changes to the fisheries policy would require a treaty change with all that entails.

Meanwhile, the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, an unashamed outer though prepared to come up with ideas for David Cameron to use in his negotiations, thinks that the Prime Minister could ask for a great deal more than he has mentioned so far. One of the things he could ask for would be Britain's exit from the common fisheries policy. Yes, that would require treaty changes but any serious reforms would require that and if those reforms are not serious they are not worth negotiating for.

Among other things the Queen's Speech touches on further developments in the process of devolution:

My government will also bring forward legislation to secure a strong and lasting constitutional settlement, devolving wide-ranging powers to Scotland and Wales. Legislation will be taken forward giving effect to the Stormont House Agreement in Northern Ireland.

My government will continue to work in cooperation with the devolved administrations on the basis of mutual respect.

My government will bring forward changes to the standing orders of the House of Commons. These changes will create fairer procedures to ensure that decisions affecting England, or England and Wales, can be taken only with the consent of the majority of Members of Parliament representing constituencies in those parts of our United Kingdom.

There is much talk about letting Scotland have the fiscal autonomy its First Minister apparently has asked for on the grounds that a real fiscal autonomy would not be to the SNP's taste. Yet, we in FAL and on this blog think that there is another way the SNP can be put on the spot as well and, maybe, induced to change its policies.

Why not take up Mr Salmond's rather inadequate suggestion and develop it by making a withdrawal from the common fisheries policy and a complete renegotiation of fisheries agreements with other EU member states on the basis of the UK's independent control of its fishing grounds one of the cored demands? Given what a mess the CFP has been over the years, it is likely to be a very popular policy across the political spectrum.