Occasionally, I find myself guilty of referring to politics as “this game”. It’s an easy mistake to make because it’s competitive, there are rules and there are winners and losers but it’s not a game. That would be too trivial a description. This was made crystal clear during the recent General Election when ninety one MPs lost their jobs. The media pontificated at length about who would retain their seat but didn’t give a passing moments thought to the MPs staff members whose jobs were also on the line. In the end around four hundred also lost their jobs. It’s particularly cruel this time around as Parliament was convened on the understanding that it was for a fixed term of five years. Across the U.K. people made life choices based on the known facts and then Theresa May rampaged through them. What I found distressing was the glee with which these job losses were received by those not affected. Labour activists cheering a Tory win because Alex Salmond lost. My own staff being asked at the count “what will it be like when you lose your job on Monday?” The dehumanising of people in public service is not a new thing but the advent of reality TV and social media has encouraged everybody to express their opinion, no matter how ill-informed or spiteful it is. We all sit in judgement, often from the comfort of our own homes, wielding a keyboard and too often we are quick to judge.
The public image of politicians with jobs to fall back on and expense accounts dripping with expensive lunches, living the high life, isn’t one I recognise. I lost good colleagues, many that gave up careers or took a drop in salary to get elected. I know too many of their staff too well to not recognise their hurt at being discarded with the minimum of redundancy. Politics has its fat cats, I don’t doubt it. But the majority of MPs are only in their post for a short period and their mortgages and bills require paying regardless. Their parliamentary staff serve the public, they work long hours, often under difficult circumstances, they don’t judge and they don’t discriminate. They have earned respect. The day we take the humanity out of politics, that’s when we reduce it to a game and that’s the day we all lose.
This shall be my last column (hopefully just for a short while) because as of midnight on Tuesday 2nd May I cease being an MP. Theresa May in her haste to protect Conservative MPs that are under scrutiny for election fraud, combined with political opportunism to kill off the divided and rudderless Labour Party has called a General Election. I have every intention of winning the Inverclyde seat back but I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the local community for their incredible support over the last two years. Businesses, organisations, private and public have been open and honest with me and I have responded accordingly. The frustration now is that the rug has been pulled from under my feet and the working relationship we have created must now be put on hold. They say a week is a long time in politics and it can be, but two years can be too short when we are trying to move mountains. My short term in office has been based around constituents. Issues you have brought to me have become campaigns I have promoted. The casework my team have taken on has been at the heart of everything we do. Every case won, every constituent we have helped has been a victory. So if the electorate will it, we shall speak again. Whatever the outcome, it has been a huge privilege to serve you and an opportunity I would not have missed for the world.
On Monday evening I attended a lecture by Brett Hennig on a Citizen’s Assembly. The idea is that a second chamber would be randomly selected from the population and employed for two years to produce legislation. It is not as radical as it sounds and similar ideas are in practice in Australia and the Netherlands. And it is not such a new idea as it was widely used in ancient Greece. Personally I can’t see it at a national level as it creates one of the fundamental problems it is trying to solve. The audience on Monday universally hated politicians, especially middle aged men. I have had more comfortable evenings.
One problem with any national chamber is that the members, who would be pulled from all over Scotland, would need to travel to and live in Glasgow for at least three days a week, just as happens at Holyrood and Westminster. That makes it less appealing to people with a young family and single parents. Therefore, the demography of the people that is required to create a representative cross section of society is immediately reduced and you end up with people who are better placed to travel and live away from home, namely middle aged men. If the concept of a citizen’s assembly was applied at a more local level it becomes more practical. Twenty people that represent a cross section of Inverclyde employed for two years to address the issues that affect Inverclyde in a non-political non-partisan way. They would then report to the local council with guidance from experts. Whether it is national or local there are a range of ideas that need sorted but it’s a hugely interesting concept around giving citizens a voice in the sort of country they want to live in.
On Wednesday Theresa May (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) triggered Article 50. This sets in motion the process by which the United Kingdom shall leave the European Union. The agreed timescale is 24 months but at this moment nothing else is agreed.
First the UK Government must agree an agenda with the EU and then they must negotiate the UKs exit. This throws up a multitude of constitutional questions and a myriad of trade and legal implications. As Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland) said on Tuesday, “we do know that the change will be significant and profound.” But, “When the nature of the change made inevitable by Brexit becomes clear, it should not be imposed upon us. Let me be clear. I want the UK to get a good deal from these negotiations – whatever path Scotland takes in the future, that is in our interests. I simply want Scotland to have a choice when the time is right.” And that to me is at the heart of any future debate.
The UK voted to leave the EU, Scotland did not. Once we know the terms and conditions that are going to be imposed on Scotland, the people of Scotland must have the democratic right to choose the path they want for their country. But first we must know what effect leaving the EU will have on local businesses, on tourists arriving on cruise ships, on students studying abroad, on Scots living in EU countries and on EU immigrants living in Scotland. Over the next two years or so we will have that debate and as the First Minister said “let us start today as we mean to go on – positively, passionately and respectfully”.
The Brexit process of scrutiny which involves the legislation being hammered out between the House of Commons and House of Lords didn’t take very long at all. The process known as ping pong was completed within a few hours and article 50 was put on a plate just waiting for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to serve it. Earlier on Monday, in Bute House, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had made it crystal clear that once the details of Brexit were known, the people of Scotland shall have the opportunity to vote in a second independence referendum. Given the timescale allowed for negotiations and ratification, it is fair to say that the referendum will be between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.
We don’t know what the constitutional situation will be in Ireland by then and what border will exist between Gibraltar and Spain. The United Kingdom government has manoeuvred itself into one unholy mess and I can guarantee you they will try everything they can to keep Scotland in the UK. Last time we were made promises that were not kept. We were told if we stayed in the UK it would protect our place in the EU, we did, and it didn’t. We were told we would be amongst the most powerful devolved governments in the world. We aren’t.
Day in day out, away from the public ear, I hear Members of the UK government talk reasonably about a range of subjects. But this falls apart when it comes to Scotland’s independence. They plead their love for Scotland. They holiday in Scotland. They own homes in Scotland. They and their offspring have or do gain from further education in Scotland’s universities. They love Scotland so much they want to keep it. I love Scotland so much, I want to set it free.
For some time now I have been saying that the welfare system is not fit for purpose. It puts unnecessary strain on those who rely on it and those that administer it. That relationship is a difficult one and was highlighted in the Ken Loach movie ‘I Daniel Blake’. Building a good working relationship between jobcentre staff and service users is a difficult and often arduous task, so it doesn’t help when politicians ride rough shod through the arena with scant regard for the compassion required or sensitivity of the subject. The most recent example of a complete lack of understanding of the situation and indeed the injustice being perpetrated on the most vulnerable section of our society was the abhorrent view expressed by Tory MP and head of the Number 10 Policy Unit George Freeman. The UK government has announced emergency legislation to change PIPs, which replaced Disability Living Allowance, and overturn two tribunal rulings last year which it claims would have added £3.7bn to the benefits bill by 2023. The support was designed to help people cope with the extra costs of living with ill health or disability. Mr Foreman said the most recent changes would ensure that benefits went to people who are “really disabled” rather than people “who suffer from anxiety”. I sometimes wonder what the Tories say in private if they are comfortable making statements such as that in public. For a Tory MP and one of Theresa May’s most senior advisers to suggest that people with a mental health disability are not “really disabled” is completely unacceptable. His words also highlight this Tory government’s total lack of understanding or compassion when it comes to providing for those who are less fortunate than others. Mental health issues are as real as physical disability. Neither should be treated lightly. One in four people in the United Kingdom will experience a mental health issue each year. Not all will be debilitating but it’s foolish to dismiss these issues and callas to class the most severe as not really disabled.
George Orwell’s novel, 1984, presents a dystopian future where news is altered and fabricated to promote the message that the governing body wishes to be heard. People are constantly on their guard due to Government surveillance. The citizens are always being asked to accept less freedom and less money, so that the ongoing war against some unknown enemy that threatens their very existence can be fought. Questioning the evidence or strategy is treason and punishable by death. People are ruled by fear and distrust of their fellow human beings. It’s a powerful story that was written in 1948, just as we entered the Cold War. Orwell’s ability to see the big picture of control by fear is writ large on every page. I have no doubt it is one of the greatest books of our time. And in our time both fake news and post-truth politics are rife. The art of subterfuge and spin have become the norm. Doublethink and newspeak permeate our media and lives. And where does this leave the electorate, the citizens, the proles? Disenfranchised, disillusioned and decidedly hacked off with the media, governments and politicians. And ironically that plays into the hands of those that Orwell described as Big Brother. With that in mind it is vital that we encourage our media to report honestly and openly without risk of retribution and politicians must fulfil their duty to shine a light on injustice and persecution. With that in mind I am delighted to see that 1984 is back in the top ten sellers list. My own copy is a bit battered so I shall order two new ones. One for me to re-read (to keep me honest) and one for the White House and hope somebody can read it to President Trump.
Terrible news this week that the jobcentre in Port Glasgow is to close. This leaves us with only one in Inverclyde. I have been assured all 28 staff will be relocated to Greenock which although not ideal is still good news. But it’s blindingly obvious that the service users will have to travel further. If a DWP office is more than three miles from the office taking up the workload then a consultation must take place before it is closed. Her majesty’s government tell me the Port office is 2.8 miles from the Greenock one. I shall be measuring that.
In another exhibition of bad judgment the Prime Minister has rushed to pay homage to President Trump. Holding hands and whispering sweet nothings. And as sweetener he has been invited to meet the Queen. Of course as the democratically elected president he must be afforded his place but the unedifying position of being a poodle to the USA has not done the UK any good in the eyes of our European allies. Brexit just got even harder.
Those of you who scrutinise the goings on at Westminster must have been appalled at the treatment given to SNP MPs during Tuesdays Brexit debate. Many SNP MPs sat through eleven hours of debate, waiting for their turn to speak and were, once again, ignored until the final hour when 7 SNPs were called and their speaking time was reduced to 4 minutes. This process is seriously flawed and undermines the voice of the democratically elected representatives of the citizens of Scotland.
Back in the eighties Margaret Thatcher was of the opinion that monetarism was the solution to all our ills and so she sold off British Gas, British Coal, British Telecom, British Steel, British Leyland and British Petroleum and encouraged everyone to become investors. The suburban hedgerows of little Britain buzzed with excitement as working and middle class people were sold a dream fuelled by financial aspiration. Money wasn’t just what we used to purchase goods, money supply was a way of controlling the economy. A generation that had been born too late for rationing and had been spared the pain of post war Britain struggling to rebuild from the ruins decided that the factory floor was not good enough, not modern enough, too dirty, too hard, too demanding and we were told that greed was good and the acquisition of wealth was the primary aim of any respectable upwardly mobile individual. We didn’t need a trade, we needed to be traders. We were told to aspire to owning faster cars and bigger houses, we were encouraged not to notice that the public transport system was crumbling and social housing was being sold off and not replaced. We were informed by Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society”. It was all about self. Stockbrokers, traders and money men became the role models and manufacturing was shipped offshore and labelled as an unworthy industry. The UK would be the financial powerhouse of the globe. Everyone, well everyone worth their salt, would be a millionaire. This was the ideology of Thatcher’s Britain.
This proposed capitalist utopia turned into the banking crash of 2009 and Joe Public who surprise surprise hadn’t found great wealth in his shares which he so optimistically bought in the eighties, was once again used to bail out the rich. We saved the banking elite amidst promises of reform that never came. Multi-national companies avoided paying tax while austerity was wielded like a giant hammer to bludgeon the poorest and keep the rest in their place while placating them with a ready supply of cheap alcohol and a national lottery to pin their hopes on.
And here we are now. 37 years after Thatcher and 8 years after the banking crash and unbelievably we are being sold the same eighties dream again. Phillip Hammond has decided that the United Kingdom will become a tax haven. We all know he means London and not even all of London, just the important parts. The parts the fat cats inhabit. Only this time we need the dream, not because of the trade unions, not because of the premature proclamation of the death of heavy industry, this time it’s the European Union’s fault. It’s Brussels fault, it’s all these foreigners coming here propping up our hotel trade and health service and building sites, doing the jobs we either can’t or are unwilling to do because we all wanted to be stockbrokers. So we are leaving them behind and with them the European Union and the single market that the European Union gives us membership of. Mr Hammond declares that he is prepared to have a tax and trade war with Europe. He threatens to impose tariffs on European imports. He declares that a wounded Britain will come back competitively engaged. He doesn’t explain how. This is the rhetoric of a man hanging on to a dream which is rapidly becoming a nightmare. Theresa May and her entourage of sycophants, charlatans and mercenaries are concocting, in a fog of uncertainty, travel plans for the United Kingdom that will take us who knows where. Unless we have a compass, a moral compass, we will make the same mistakes again and the only thing we do know, is that way madness lies.
It’s traditional to make resolutions and predictions at the start of a new year. Well I resolutely refuse to predict anything. After all, not even Nostradamus could have predicted the events of last year and the problem with resolutions is they are often just thinly veiled aspirations, world peace and happiness, or at worst, no more than a wish list, new job, new car, lose weight, gain money. Nothing happens by chance. If we want change, we need to set goals, plan and work. We have another year laid out in front of us and it’s ours to make of it what we will. While trying to define the areas that I wish to focus on this year I had to whittle down a very long list and I still ended up with ten topics. I know there shall be occasions when one demands more time than the others and therefore it will always be a balancing act. Bringing jobs to Inverclyde is always the local priority. Gainful employment resolves so many other issues. Flooding, parking and broadband are a trio of topics that frustratingly require attention on an on-going basis. Drugs, gambling and prostitution are areas of exploitation that wreck lives and need serious reform. Our welfare system is creaking at the seams and a Universal Basic Income needs researched and pilot projects run. And we need to regenerate Inverclyde, our industry and our arts. It goes without saying that I believe all these areas would be better addressed by the people of Scotland, for the people of Scotland but my parliamentary office puts up no barriers to good ideas. We live in an imperfect world but the majority of these imperfections are of our own making. With ambition and hard work we can take our community forward. Let’s embrace a brave new year and make 2017 one that we, the people of Inverclyde, can be proud of.