Williamson’s fight against grade inflation will be long and painful

14 Aug

From the moment the Government decided that this year’s school exams would not take place, it had set itself a horribly complicated challenge fraught with political danger.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to see what the ‘right’ answer is. Trying to hand out grades based on cancelled exams is like trying to issue medals for a cancelled Olympics. No matter how clever the maths is, people are going to be unhappy.

Few people, if any, seem to have grasped in advance the scale of the problem. If anything, Gavin Williamson and his team have caught a lucky break in that the SNP administration in Edinburgh ran spectacularly aground on this same reef right in front of them.

Cue some frantic tacking, with ministers unveiling a(nother) ‘triple lock’, with pupils able to choose between their awarded grades, the results of their mock exams, or to sit the actual exams in the autumn.

On the face of it, this is an improvement on Nicola Sturgeon’s response, which was to spend the best part of a week defending the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s decision to adjust grades based on a school’s past performance (essentially dooming bright children from disadvantaged areas) before capitulating completely and simply accepting the implausibly rosy estimates offered by teachers in full.

But it’s far from perfect. There are allegations that the system used for estimating grades favours private schools, with their smaller cohorts. Then there’s the mind-boggling fact that because individual schools are being graded on a curve, a successful appeal against poor grades by one pupil has a knock-on effect on every other pupil at that school.

(It really is almost impossible to overstate how insane that last part is.)

The potential for political toxicity is enormous. At its worst, this story could become a sort of antimatter version of the usual blondes-jumping-for-joy stories that usually accompany results day. As the Scottish Nationalists have discovered, defending the overall integrity of the system creates lots of concrete losers whilst abstracting the gains – the ultimate losing formula.

And whereas the Scottish Government could at least bring a guillotine down on the issue by capitulating, the Prime Minister may not have such luck. Pupils are going to have to wait a week to even find out what the appeals process is – it hasn’t been designed yet – and it will be overseen not by a single qualifications body but by several exam boards. Then we potentially have to repeat the whole saga for GCSEs.

Given that these exams were cancelled months ago, it isn’t unfair to suggest (although acknowledging that nobody really seems to have grasped how big a problem this would be) that the Department for Education should have worked out a plan by now. When the dust finally settles, this will join the flailing effort to get schools open on the long, long list of failures of the state to be picked over post-pandemic.

But from where we are now, what can Williamson do? On the one hand, the current arrangements seem to hold so much potential political pain that some adjustments (or u-turns, as you prefer) seem likely.

Yet the Education Secretary has come out very hard against grade inflation, which would make it extremely difficult to copy Sturgeon and simply swallow predicted grades wholesale. Ofqual has claimed that without a standard benchmark different schools have been applying different standards, with a minority submitting ‘vastly inflated’ predictions. According to the regulator: “A rare few centres put in implausibly high judgments, including one which submitted all A* and A grades for students in two subjects, where previously there had been normal distribution.”

This is precisely what happened in Scotland, where SQA were responding to predicted grades which suggested a year-on-year improvement in Scottish school performance of 20 per cent. When Sturgeon said this wasn’t ‘credible’, she was correct.

There are more or less charitable interpretations for why predicted grades are so high. Sam Freeman suggests it is because “teachers’ are assessing their view of capability and exams assess actual performance”, so teachers are offering what they think is the upper bound of the grades their pupils will accept – a position which itself demands some form of moderation.

A more cynical view, which underpins the neglected cause of Conservative education reform, is that this is what usually happens when the ‘Blob’ is left to mark its own homework, which is why much of the education establishment is so bitterly opposed to such exams in the first place. For this reason, Ministers will likely be unmoved by those calling for the return of coursework and the AS Level, which might have provided a broader evidence base from which to respond to a once-in-several-generations pandemic but otherwise simply increase the year-on-year opportunities for educators to put their thumb on the scales.

Simultaneously doing right by individual school-leavers whilst defending the overall integrity of the results system proved beyond the wit of the Scottish Government. We’ll now find out if Westminster skill, or the will, to do any better.

Henry Hill: Nationalists forced into u-turn on exam results as party divisions deepen

13 Aug

SNP u-turn on exam results after backlash…

The Scottish Government had a poll tax moment this week as school pupils led a furious backlash against its proposals for mediating this year’s school exam results, prompting a complete u-turn.

Now John Swinney, the Education Minister and one of Nicola Sturgeon’s key allies, is facing calls to resign – although with the Scottish Greens supporting the Government he’s safe from any no-confidence vote.

The row erupted over the decision of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to adjust down the self-assessed results handed out by teachers. As they did this in line with the previous performance of the school, it led to bright pupils from disadvantaged areas being marked down on the basis of their postcode.

This went down about as well as you’d expect – a sort of anti-matter version of the usual blondes-jumping-with-joy results-day story. Pupils staged a protest and the opposition parties piled in. The SNP finally caved, but only after spending a week trying to defend the decision and attacking teachers’ self-assessed grades as ‘not credible’.

Whilst the Scottish Government’s rankings remain stubbornly high, this shows that the SNP aren’t immune to the corrosive effects of an extended period in office on political judgement. The SQA’s decision was very probably good policy – the unmoderated results are implausibly high – but maintaining the integrity of the system creates concrete, photogenic losers and only abstract winners.

The question is whether or not Sturgeon’s complete capitulation can limit the fallout, or if this is going to dog the Nationalists’ fortunes in the run-up to next year’s Holyrood elections.

…as the Party’s internal divisions deepen

Another threat to the Nationalists’ election campaign are the still-deepening divisions within the movement, as the two wings of the separatist movement continue to come apart.

This week the party’s national secretary is in the firing line over sudden changes to their internal rules over candidate selections, according to the Daily Record.

Under the proposed new arrangements, SNP Members of Parliament can’t stand for Holyrood without resigning their Westminster seat and raising £10,000 towards the resulting by-election campaign.

This is widely seen as being an effort to thwart the bid by Joanna Cherry, a high-profile Nationalist MP and ally of Alex Salmond, from moving to Holyrood next year. She had been preparing to fight Angus Robertson, the former Moray MP and Sturgeon loyalist, to be SNP candidate for Edinburgh Central.

Another MP, Alyn Smith, has meanwhile been criticised for suggesting that the number of ‘equalities’ posts on the party’s executive be slimmed down in order to re-focus on independence, the Sun reports.

On top of all this, a documentary about Salmond’s trial is due to be broadcast next week!

Johnson launches ‘plea for the Union’

The Prime Minister has put himself front and centre of the fight for the Union as he heads up to Scotland on holiday. He has reportedly ordered ministers to make regular visits north as part of a campaign to make the UK Government more visible in Scotland.

According to the Daily Telegraph, this is much-needed. Scottish ministers have apparently been getting the political credit for many of the economic and jobs-protecting interventions made by Rishi Sunak and the Treasury – the mirror of the usual trend wherein ‘Westminster’ is blamed for the failings of devolved government.

Boris Johnson is still taking a very muscular approach, though, having apparently blocked a proposal from Michael Gove to give Sturgeon a seat in the Cabinet. Suffice to say this is quite correct: the First Minister has no role in reserved policy, and including the devolved governments in it would be another step towards a confederal UK.

Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, also refused to be grilled by MSPs over the Government’s proposals for protecting the British common market post-Brexit, and David Mundell accused the Scottish Government of deliberately sinking a deal on the same in order to stoke grievance.

Op-eds:

  • We can stand up to nationalism’s false promises – Douglas Ross MP, Daily Telegraph
  • The hypocrisy of ‘devocrats’ like Sturgeon imperils the UK economy – Matt Smith, CapX
  • That SNP reputation for competence is now in tatters – Euan McColm, The Scotsman
  • Can Johnson stop Scottish independence? – Alex Massie, The Spectator
  • The foundations of Scotland’s democracy have crumbled and you should worry – Robin McAlpine, Source
  • The UK is nearing breaking point and the Unionists must fight back – William Hague, Daily Telegraph
  • The consequences of the new border down the Irish Sea – Owen Polley, CapX
  • Why this education disaster must be Swinney’s last – Richard Leonard MSP, The Scotsman

Henry Hill: Nationalists forced into u-turn on exam results as party divisions deepen

13 Aug

SNP u-turn on exam results after backlash…

The Scottish Government had a poll tax moment this week as school pupils led a furious backlash against its proposals for mediating this year’s school exam results, prompting a complete u-turn.

Now John Swinney, the Education Minister and one of Nicola Sturgeon’s key allies, is facing calls to resign – although with the Scottish Greens supporting the Government he’s safe from any no-confidence vote.

The row erupted over the decision of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to adjust down the self-assessed results handed out by teachers. As they did this in line with the previous performance of the school, it led to bright pupils from disadvantaged areas being marked down on the basis of their postcode.

This went down about as well as you’d expect – a sort of anti-matter version of the usual blondes-jumping-with-joy results-day story. Pupils staged a protest and the opposition parties piled in. The SNP finally caved, but only after spending a week trying to defend the decision and attacking teachers’ self-assessed grades as ‘not credible’.

Whilst the Scottish Government’s rankings remain stubbornly high, this shows that the SNP aren’t immune to the corrosive effects of an extended period in office on political judgement. The SQA’s decision was very probably good policy – the unmoderated results are implausibly high – but maintaining the integrity of the system creates concrete, photogenic losers and only abstract winners.

The question is whether or not Sturgeon’s complete capitulation can limit the fallout, or if this is going to dog the Nationalists’ fortunes in the run-up to next year’s Holyrood elections.

…as the Party’s internal divisions deepen

Another threat to the Nationalists’ election campaign are the still-deepening divisions within the movement, as the two wings of the separatist movement continue to come apart.

This week the party’s national secretary is in the firing line over sudden changes to their internal rules over candidate selections, according to the Daily Record.

Under the proposed new arrangements, SNP Members of Parliament can’t stand for Holyrood without resigning their Westminster seat and raising £10,000 towards the resulting by-election campaign.

This is widely seen as being an effort to thwart the bid by Joanna Cherry, a high-profile Nationalist MP and ally of Alex Salmond, from moving to Holyrood next year. She had been preparing to fight Angus Robertson, the former Moray MP and Sturgeon loyalist, to be SNP candidate for Edinburgh Central.

Another MP, Alyn Smith, has meanwhile been criticised for suggesting that the number of ‘equalities’ posts on the party’s executive be slimmed down in order to re-focus on independence, the Sun reports.

On top of all this, a documentary about Salmond’s trial is due to be broadcast next week!

Johnson launches ‘plea for the Union’

The Prime Minister has put himself front and centre of the fight for the Union as he heads up to Scotland on holiday. He has reportedly ordered ministers to make regular visits north as part of a campaign to make the UK Government more visible in Scotland.

According to the Daily Telegraph, this is much-needed. Scottish ministers have apparently been getting the political credit for many of the economic and jobs-protecting interventions made by Rishi Sunak and the Treasury – the mirror of the usual trend wherein ‘Westminster’ is blamed for the failings of devolved government.

Boris Johnson is still taking a very muscular approach, though, having apparently blocked a proposal from Michael Gove to give Sturgeon a seat in the Cabinet. Suffice to say this is quite correct: the First Minister has no role in reserved policy, and including the devolved governments in it would be another step towards a confederal UK.

Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, also refused to be grilled by MSPs over the Government’s proposals for protecting the British common market post-Brexit, and David Mundell accused the Scottish Government of deliberately sinking a deal on the same in order to stoke grievance.

Op-eds:

  • We can stand up to nationalism’s false promises – Douglas Ross MP, Daily Telegraph
  • The hypocrisy of ‘devocrats’ like Sturgeon imperils the UK economy – Matt Smith, CapX
  • That SNP reputation for competence is now in tatters – Euan McColm, The Scotsman
  • Can Johnson stop Scottish independence? – Alex Massie, The Spectator
  • The foundations of Scotland’s democracy have crumbled and you should worry – Robin McAlpine, Source
  • The UK is nearing breaking point and the Unionists must fight back – William Hague, Daily Telegraph
  • The consequences of the new border down the Irish Sea – Owen Polley, CapX
  • Why this education disaster must be Swinney’s last – Richard Leonard MSP, The Scotsman

James Somerville-Meikle: The SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation is a threat to freedom of expression in Scotland

7 Aug

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.

What do Catholic Bishops and the National Secular Society have in common?

Despite their different world views, they have found common ground in opposing the SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation – which both groups fear will damage freedom of expression in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced earlier this year with the aim of helping to “build community cohesion”. It has proved more effective than Scottish Ministers could ever have imagined. Most of civil society in Scotland is now united in opposition to the Bill.

A recent consultation by Holyrood’s Justice Committee revealed the full extent of this opposition – which goes well beyond the usual nationalist critics. The Society of Scottish Newspapers, the Law Society of Scotland, and the Scottish Police Federation, have all publicly called for a rethink from the Scottish Government.

A new campaign group – Free to Disagree – has started to oppose the Bill, led by former SNP Deputy Leader Jim Sillars, the National Secular Society, and the Christian Institute. To have brought together such a diverse range of opponents is a pretty impressive achievement by the SNP’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf.

But it’s the criticism from the Scottish Catholic Bishops which is perhaps the most striking.

In their submission to the Justice Committee, the Bishops warn that “a new offence of possessing inflammatory material could even render material such as the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church… inflammatory.”

Let’s be clear what this means – the Catholic Church, which counts around 700,000 followers in Scotland, is worried that legislation currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament could make expressing their beliefs a criminal offence.

The Bishops acknowledge their concerns are based on a “low threshold” interpretation of the proposed new offence. But the fact that such concerns exist at all is extraordinary.

Catholic Bishops in Scotland choose their battles carefully – conscious of a public sphere that does not take kindly to lectures from Bishops. The strength of their public comments shows just how much concern there is about the Bill. It’s also perhaps a sign they think this is one area where they might be able to force a change of approach from the Scottish Government.

The Bill would also introduce a new offence of “stirring up hatred” against certain groups, even if a person making the remarks had not intended any offence.

Currently in Scotland, the offence of “stirring up hatred” only applies in respect of race, but this would be expanded under the Bill to include “age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variation in sex characteristics.”

This huge expansion of the law is not combined with any definition of what “stirring up hatred” means. The Bill’s Explanatory Notes say that an offence could be committed through “behaviour of any kind”, which “may consist of a single act or a course of conduct.” In other words, pretty much anything could constitute an offence.

Crucially, criminal behaviour under the new law would be based on offence caused, rather than intended – a significant difference to England and Wales where intent is required for a person to be criminalised for behaviour which someone finds insulting. As a result, it risks creating a situation in which offending becomes an offence.

It’s little wonder that police officers, lawyers, and journalists are deeply worried about the proposals. The Bill paints broad brush strokes and leaves others to work out the picture. The task of interpreting a law where offences are not wholly within your control but based on how others perceive your words and actions, is fraught with perils.

Catholic Bishops fear this could lead to a “deluge of vexatious claims”. The Scottish Police Federation warns it could mean officers “determining free speech”, leading to a breakdown in relations with the public. And the Law Society of Scotland raised concerns that “certain behaviour, views expressed or even an actor’s performance, which might well be deemed insulting or offensive, could result in a criminal conviction under the terms of the bill as currently drafted.” Not exactly the cohesive society envisaged by the Scottish Government.

At the heart of this debate is a fundamental question about what a cohesive and tolerant society looks like. Does tolerance require conformity and removing any possible source of offence? Or does it mean accepting and respecting difference of opinion within certain red lines?

To use No 10’s language – it’s a question of whether we level up or level down when it comes to freedom of expression. In the case of the SNP’s proposals, it looks like a race to the bottom.

This is not an enviable position. As Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society points out:

“Freedom to say only what others find acceptable is no freedom at all.”

There is still time for the Scottish Government to reconsider its approach. Most of the groups opposed to the Bill, including the Catholic Bishops, agree that stirring up hatred is wrong, and would welcome an update to hate crime legislation. But the current approach is not working and Scottish Ministers must realise that.

Creating a catch-all offence, and passing the buck to the police and courts, is not the way forward. It’s sloppy law-making, and risks threatening the vibrancy and diversity of life in Scotland.

The publication of the Bill has shown that people with completely different views are capable of respecting one another, and even working together for a common cause.

What unites religious and secular voices is a belief in freedom of expression. This must be upheld, or we will all suffer as a result.

Henry Hill: With less than a year to go, Ross sets out his vision for the Scottish Tories

6 Aug

Ross is unopposed as new leader of the Scottish Conservatives

Douglas Ross has said he “won’t be pushed around” by the Government has he takes the helm of the Scottish Conservatives, according to the Times, as he says its time to “turn the page on over a decade of division“.

The Moray MP has been returned unopposed to succeed Jackson Carlaw, who stepped down last week. His is expected to seek a seat in the Scottish Parliament at next year’s devolved elections, until which time Ruth Davidson will deputise for him at First Minister’s Questions.

He has already given an indication of his priorities, promising a ‘jobs plan’ within 30 days of taking up his new position. Ross has also pledged to “strip powers from Holyrood” and pass them to “regions, cities, and towns”, an interesting echo of the Welsh Conservatives’ changing rhetoric on devolution.

Ross has been endorsed by Murdo Fraser, one of the only MSPs viewed as a realistic challenger, and profiled in the Courier, as well as speaking to Michael Crick.

Meanwhile opponents are suggesting that he and Davidson ‘plotted’ to oust Carlaw, pointing to a ‘secret’ meeting between the two of them in his constituency days before the latter’s resignation. Davidson insists Ross only asked her to join his team after he had announced his decision to run.

The change in leadership has clearly got some in the SNP rattled: the usually-slick Nationalist media operation tweeted out a claim that Ross had a “history of racist views” before hurriedly deleting it.

SNP under ‘mounting pressure’ over exam debacle…

The Scottish Government is facing a furious backlash over exam results, with opponents suggesting that John Swinney, the Education Secretary, should have his career on the line.

With Covid-19 rendering exams unsafe, teachers were instead asked to submit predicted grades for their pupils. But the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) believed a lot of the grades to be over-estimates, and ended up downgrading results in 124,000 cases.

Controversially, the SQA measured the predictions against the past performance of the area in question – meaning that bright pupils in poorly performing schools risked being effectively assessed on their postcode, and resulting in sharper reductions in disadvantaged areas.

For her part, Nicola Sturgeon has said that teachers’ assessments were “not credible” – and as Tom Harris has pointed out, she may have a point. But whilst statistical moderation may be fair in aggregate, it doesn’t feel like it when you’re on the receiving end.

A “deluge of appeals” is anticipated – and there are already warnings that even this stopgap might not be available if the same thing happens in England and Wales. The Scottish Government has also been accused of imposing a ‘whack-a-mole’ lockdown on Aberdeen in part to distract from the row.

On the subject of statistics, Sturgeon has also been criticised by the statistics authority for misleading comparisons between England and Scotland – see this report from These Islands for more.

…as Salmond and Sturgeon set for showdown

The current and former leaders of the SNP are set for a furious clash which, Alex Massie argues, yet provide a get-out clause for the Union ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections.

Alex Salmond has reportedly compiled a cache of documents evidencing a ‘conspiracy’ against him by the current Nationalist leadership, according to the Times. This comes as Sturgeon, his successor and one-time close ally, prepares to testify under oath about her administration’s botched investigation into allegations against him.

Salmond’s supporters are already angry that the Scottish Government has missed a deadline for handing over its own documents to the inquiry, as we mentioned last week. And the Herald reports that it has also confirmed that Sturgeon had a meeting with Salmond which she had not previously declared to MSPs.

The battle between these two camps is being waged on multiple fronts. Elsewhere this week, Joanna Cherry MP – a prominent Salmondite – attacked Sturgeon’s fixation on Brexit.

For their part the SNP changed the party’s rules to make it effectively impossible for her to contest Edinburgh Central at Holyrood next year, clearing the way for Sturgeon ally Angus Robertson – not the only controversy over Nationalist selections this week.

Op-eds and Reports:

  • Mystery and suspicion on one question: why did Arlene Foster do it? – Sam McBride, News Letter
  • Is the end for Arlene Foster? – Owen Polley, The Article
  • Hume’s legitimisation of Sinn Fein was an appalling misjudgement – Ruth Dudley Edwards, Website
  • Embracing the compromises of political giants – Tom McTague, The Atlantic
  • London must act to protect the Union, and fast – Ben Lowry, News Letter
  • The mirage of progressive Scotland – David Jamieson, Tribune
  • Presentation is key to beating the SNP – Adam Tomkins MSP, The Scotsman
  • A new Act of Union is needed to save the United Kingdom – Stephen Daisley, Scottish Daily Mail
  • Footnoting the Belfast Agreement’s invisible annex – Owen Polley, The Critic

Graham Gudgin: Now is the time to combat Scottish Nationalism

5 Aug

Dr Graham Gudgin is an honorary research associate at the Centre for Business Research, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He was Special Advisor to the First Minister in Northern Ireland 1998-2002.

When Douglas Murray wrote recently that Scottish nationalists are unique in escaping the opprobrium usually associated with nationalism he is only half right. Irish nationalists have pulled off this trick for decades or centuries even when their supporters were killing people. The trick is to make liberals view the nationalist cause as escaping from victimhood. Rather like escaping from a bad marriage, many will support the new beginnings of independence.

Who would not have supported the Finns escaping from Russian domination? The West always supports nationalists escaping from its opponents grasp, like the new nations emerging from the Soviet-bloc, even including Kossova a province of the greatly disliked Serbia.

Even more than the Irish, the Scots have a good case in arguing for independence. Their history and geography set them apart. They were an independent state for many centuries and could be one again. To write, as Murray did, that an independent Scotland would “join sub-Saharan Africa in the world poverty indices” is silly and will, of course, be taken as typical English condescension. The battle to save the union is now deadly serious and must be treated seriously.

We must recognise that devolution in the form adopted in 1998 was a mistake. Although there were misgivings at the time, the Labour view that devolution would strengthen the union prevailed but is now in tatters. Devolution cannot deal with a contested adherence to the wider nation any more than it could in Ireland. Labour domination of Scottish politics was viewed as sufficient protection for the union especially with an admirable leader in Donald Dewar. However, as the unifying memories of the world wars faded, along with strong memories of Scottish martial prowess, feelings of separateness could be built upon.

Although the SNP hate the idea, latent nationalism was reignited by North Sea Oil. The SNP first made real electoral gains under the slogan, ‘Its Scotland’s Oil’. The potent mix of a distinct national identity allied with financial strength was there to be exploited by middle-class Scottish nationalists who stood to gain financially and in status from independence.

The SNP’s problem was to carry with them the working class, especially on Clydeside. Thatcherism provided an opportunity with its use of Scotland as a testbed for the poll tax and the SNP grasped it gratefully. Ever since they have presented themselves as progressives. The long withdrawal of Labour from its historic role in defending working-class interests gradually overcame electoral loyalty, and just as in the red wall of northern England, Labour surrendered its Scottish base.

All of this is a national tragedy, but we are where we are. The task now for unionists is to face up to the realities of the problem and to avoid superficial remedies and soft-soap talk. These include avoiding a reliance on throwing money at the problem. Just as in Northern Ireland, the flow of cash from England does little to soften nationalist sentiments. Money is accepted without gratitude. Feelings of financial dependence can just as easily foster resentment as generating a need to ‘cling to nurse for fear of finding something worse’. In Scotland, the majority have never heard of Rishi Sunak, the saviour of their economy during a global pandemic.

Although the realities do indeed include living standards supported by financial subsidies from London, we should not assume that this will be decisive. Scotland’s economy is quite strong, with per capita GDP at close to the UK average. There is little doubt that Scotland could emerge as an economically successful nation rather like Denmark.

Subsidies are not necessary to bring Scots up to English living standards but rather have allowed Scottish living standards, and especially public services, to be better than in England and higher than their own resources would allow. ONS data shows that Scottish living standards are well above the English average and close to those of London once house price differences are taken into account. Scots may be willing to settle for a degree of austerity in return for independence, and with post-independence living standards at something close to the English average, their lot could be acceptable.

So, what is the case for the union? The core case is that three-hundred years of successful union should not be lightly tossed aside. The UK has been a force for good in the world through this period and can continue to fill this role. As a nuclear power with a seat on the UN Security Council and at the centre of a multi-racial Commonwealth of nations, its global reach is immense.

The SNP’s alternative of a future inside the EU may yet backfire if the UK secures a satisfactory deal with the EU and demonstrates that, like Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, economic life outside the EU can be quite satisfactory. A slogan of ‘Give Back Control (to the EU)’ would hardly help the SNP. An EU border at Berwick would be a nuisance for everyone but especially the Scots.

The financial strength of the UK might not be decisive but is nonetheless a strong card which should be played vigorously. The Barnett Formula under which Scotland has received its subsidies since 1979 does little for the union since it leaves financial support largely invisible to voters. It needs to be quickly replaced by a UK Cohesion Fund. Public funds should be initially allocated on a simple basis pro-rata to population. This would leave Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland well short of what they currently receive, and the difference should be made up from a cohesion fund which makes it fully clear what money is coming from where. We need not go as far as putting Union Jacks on new roads or buildings, but the message would be clear.

Finally, although it is dreadfully late in the day, efforts should be made to contest Scottish beliefs about their own history. Like the Irish, the core of national identity is built upon beliefs about a successful resistance to English attempts at dominance, in the Scottish case most notably at Bannockburn.

The real story, as in Ireland, is not of attack from the English but by French-speaking Normans who, having overrun England, expanded further into Wales. Ireland and Scotland as well as Southern Europe and the Middle East. Scots’ resistance was helped by bringing in their own Norman barons, including the Le Brus and Balliol families, and unifying their own diverse ethnic groups under William Wallach (William the Welshman).

Even so, this would not have worked without the Great Famine, the Black Death and the Hundred Years War to deter the Norman descendants. Independence from then on was then a largely sad story of poverty, feudal dominance and dissension, until the Scots flowered magnificently within the British Empire.

David Starkey’s description of pre-union Scotland as a “benighted hellhole” might be too strong but is reminder of why the union was so positive for the Scots

Having tied themselves to an England on the up, Scots are tempted to jump ship from what they see as English decline. The best tactic is to persuade and demonstrate that a post-Brexit UK has a bright future, remaining a force for good in a troubled world. This needs to be a national effort involving historians, economists and many others. If we leave the task to Johnsonian bluster, we can expect the worst.

Richard Holden: Across the “Blue Wall”, there’s little sign Starmer’s approach to the crisis has cut through

3 Aug

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Green, Billy Row, County Durham. Nothing brings you back down to reality like properly being out and about in the towns and villages of North West Durham. People don’t hesitate to politely let you know their opinions, which I conveyed – again politely – to Amanda Milling, the Party Chairman.

Since lockdown eased, Amanda has sensibly been out and about across the “Blue Wall” and popped by to formally open my new office, before meeting some local members and constituents in Consett. It was only in 2010 that the Conservatives gained her seat of Cannock Chase. Part of the original “Red” to “Blue Wall” swing seats from 2010. it’s now held with 68.3 per cent of the vote for the Conservatives and a majority of almost 20,000. Something to aspire to and we are nothing if not the part of aspiration.

Lockdown has changed a few things and there is, understandably, concern about the future due to Coronavirus. While the caravan parks are full and people are holidaying in the towns and villages of Weardale, the reverse is true for my local businesses and companies that rely on international travel. From travel agents, through airlines, to aircraft manufacturers, all have been hit hard. How the next few months are managed is really going to set the course for the next few years.

But to date, the management of the economic impact of the crisis is seen as sound. A testament to that is that one first name has joined that very short list of “household name” politicians alongside “Boris” locally and that is “Rishi” – very much seen as someone who has worked hand-in-glove with the Prime Minister and done all he can to help steady the ship, in a credible way, at a very difficult time.

One of the things that really doesn’t appear to have changed though the antipathy of local people towards the London (and on a local level City of Durham) centric Labour machine. It’s quite clear that Keir Starmer, too, certainly hasn’t really cut through in any positive meaningful way here.

This hasn’t been aided by the missteps of the Labour-run County Council who, at the heart of the pandemic in late March, voted to put a new 3,000 sq ft roof terrace on top of their proposed new monstrous carbuncle of a County Hall on a floodplain in the centre of Durham city.

At a national level, Labour’s lawyerly approach to the crisis hasn’t helped it either. If your job is on the line – as quite a few are in my community – Starmer’s “Goldilocks Politics” of “too much/too little, too fast/too slow” with lashings of hindsight-driven drivel isn’t winning you over.

No-one wants to know that, like any good barrister, you can argue the counter argument. They want to know you get the economic reality of what’s going on and are instructing your local councillors where they’re in place to do something about it.

From those snatched chats over coffee or a pint in the pubs of North West Durham, it’s clear to me that without showing a desire to really challenge the basic economic arguments of the far-Left, Labour have still further to fall. This is Starmer’s real challenge: he’s dumped Corbyn, but can he – does he even want to – dump Corbynomics?

Within three months of taking office following the death of John Smith, Blair had told the Labour Party Conference he was going to change Clause 4 and within a matter of months at a special conference in April 1995 he did just that.

Aside from managing to knife his opponent for the job and boot her out of the Shadow Cabinet, Starmer’s first four months in office have been barely a tremor on the political Richter scale.

If I were Starmer at this moment I’d be recognising that I have one shot at this and boldly lay down the policy tracks in order to concentrate on next year’s elections in Scotland, Wales, London, The Midlands and the English counties.

From the attempted coup in 2017 and brutality of the internal wars currently taking place, it’s clear that Labour is up for knifing its leaders if they look like an electoral liability.

Starmer needs to show that Labour can win big in its remaining heartlands of London and Wales and show that he’s there, challenging the SNP in Scotland and winning over county councils across England – creating a real base for the future.

For us Conservatives the challenge is different. We can’t control what Starmer will or won’t do – any more than we can really predict or determine when we’ll finally be rid of the damned Coronavirus.

It’s about proving that we not only culturally understand the “Blue Wall”, but grasp their economic needs and aspirations too. The massive support that taxpayers have provided via the Government has not gone unnoticed by the man and woman in The Green at Billy Row and has cut through to constituents.

For the future it’s a mixture of delivering on policies both big – like the commitments on levelling-up – but also smaller policies, like ensuring that community services are maintained and lives, where possible, made a little easier, and cheaper.

Often that’s through ensuring fairness where the market fails or is skewed. From getting housing built on brown field sites that have been squabbled over for decades, to the cash machine on the green at Billy Row.

It might take some ingenuity at times, but we’ll need to keep highlighting to people that we’re on their side in their community economically, as well as culturally, to keep the trajectory away from Labour and to the Conservatives on course as we build the Blue Wall.

Henry Hill: If Gove and Johnson want to save Britain, they’re going to have to use the word ‘Britain’

30 Jul

Gove digs out Better Together’s greatest hits as Davidson heads to the Lords

Michael Gove has been in Scotland this week, fronting a new push by the Cabinet to raise the Government’s profile north of the border ahead of next year’s Holyrood vote – with a particular focus on the under-35s.

Following polls which suggest that independence is not a priority for the Scottish electorate, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that he will not be ‘distracted’ by those showing majority support for breaking up Britain.

He has also adopted an identifiable style – perhaps informed by Downing Street polling – which appears to be setting the tone for the pro-UK effort. It includes repeatedly stressing that devolution is not only ‘working’ but, in a phrase dredged up from 2014, offers “the best of both worlds”.

As I wrote for the Daily Telegraph this week, this is a tactical position with huge strategic dangers. The insistence that ‘devolution is working‘ makes it difficult to attack the SNP’s many failures, or to answer the separatists when they pose the simple question of why, if Holyrood is using all these powers so well, should it not have even more?

Worse still, Gove’s article for the Times makes repeated references to the “four nations” and “different nations” of the UK, but doesn’t mention ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ once. It bodes ill for any effort to build an ’emotional case’ for the Union if Cabinet ministers dare not speak the nation’s name.

Ruth Davidson, however, has struck a different note to this softly-softly approach, suggesting that Unionists should have been more combative and “put the boot in” to the SNP in the aftermath of the 2014 vote. This comes as the Press & Journal reports SNP fears that she is being elevated to the Lords to launch high-profile attacks on them (surely a reasonable assumption).

With the Government preparing to face down the Scottish Government over control of the British internal market, and another row brewing over the proposed ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, the best that can be hoped is that Gove is speaking softly so as not to draw attention to a big, big stick. Or boot.

New parties shaking up the unionist and separatist camps in Scotland

With the possibility of a second independence referendum possibly riding on the results of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections (although it shouldn’t), the stakes are extremely high – and have tempted new entrants into the ring.

In the nationalist corner is the new Alliance for Independence. This has been set up with the express intention of gaming Holyrood’s electoral system by contesting only the list vote, attracting vast numbers of SNP second preferences, and delivering a separatist supermajority next year.

However it has already become a locus for deeper tensions within the independence movement, with Nationalist figures dissatisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s safety-first strategy rallying to its defence. There are also concerns that it could become a vehicle for Alex Salmond to stage his next comeback.

(On a related note, the Daily Record reports that the Scottish Government is set to miss an important deadline for turning over documents to the inquiry into the debacle with the former First Minister.)

On the pro-UK side, meanwhile, is George Galloway’s Alliance 4 Unity. This is an explicitly ecumenical effort, distinct from his Workers Party GB: he has openly stated that he will work with Tories in the name of defeating the SNP, and attracted candidates from a range of backgrounds to stand under the A4U banner.

Despite that, Galloway’s big opening might be on the left, exploiting the gap in the market created by the moribund Scottish Labour Party (more below) and wooing Lab-Nat switchers tempted by the radical promises of independence supporters.

Crack in DUP unity as Foster spurs rebellion over Stormont changes

A major crack in the discipline of the Democratic Unionist Party appeared this week, when Arlene Foster found herself facing the largest Stormont rebellion in the Party’s history.

The revolt was staged over a controversial bill intended to give increased powers to individual ministers in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, the News Letter reports. The move has been pushed through by the DUP and Sinn Fein, whilst being opposed by the Ulster Unionists.

Senior DUP figures have accused the First Minister of trading away important safeguards secured for Unionism at previous negotiations. Outside observers have also suggested that it will increase the exposure of Executive decisions to legal challenge.

If this comes to pass, it will join the St Andrews Agreement in the line of Stormont fouling itself up with self-directed reform.

BBC urged to drop Sturgeon’s ‘political broadcasts’

The BBC has been urged to stop broadcasting Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus press briefings on the basis that she is using them for party political purposes.

According to the HeraldScottish Labour have demanded a meeting with the head of BBC Scotland and claim that the broadcasts are “in breach of the Charter of the BBC”. The Tories have made the same claim – in their case slightly awkwardly, as the Prime Minister is in the process of trying to set up a similar press briefing at Westminster.

Sturgeon has been accused of misrepresenting Scotland’s Covid-19 statistics, and downplaying the scandal in Scottish care homes revealed by the BBC.

Labour veteran calls on Leonard to step down ‘for the Party’

Lord Foulkes has called on Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to step aside ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament electons, the Daily Record reports.

The peer, a former MP and MSP, suggests that Jackie Baillie, the punchy and relatively right-wing deputy leader, could take over on an interim basis for the 2021 campaign.

Leonard is a left-winger who was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. His leadership has seen a fresh waning in the Party’s fortunes, losing all but one of its MPs (again) at the 2019 election and fifth place at the final European elections. Labour are currently bumping along at 15 per cent in the Holyrood polls.

Henry Hill: If Gove and Johnson want to save Britain, they’re going to have to use the word ‘Britain’

30 Jul

Gove digs out Better Together’s greatest hits as Davidson heads to the Lords

Michael Gove has been in Scotland this week, fronting a new push by the Cabinet to raise the Government’s profile north of the border ahead of next year’s Holyrood vote – with a particular focus on the under-35s.

Following polls which suggest that independence is not a priority for the Scottish electorate, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that he will not be ‘distracted’ by those showing majority support for breaking up Britain.

He has also adopted an identifiable style – perhaps informed by Downing Street polling – which appears to be setting the tone for the pro-UK effort. It includes repeatedly stressing that devolution is not only ‘working’ but, in a phrase dredged up from 2014, offers “the best of both worlds”.

As I wrote for the Daily Telegraph this week, this is a tactical position with huge strategic dangers. The insistence that ‘devolution is working‘ makes it difficult to attack the SNP’s many failures, or to answer the separatists when they pose the simple question of why, if Holyrood is using all these powers so well, should it not have even more?

Worse still, Gove’s article for the Times makes repeated references to the “four nations” and “different nations” of the UK, but doesn’t mention ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ once. It bodes ill for any effort to build an ’emotional case’ for the Union if Cabinet ministers dare not speak the nation’s name.

Ruth Davidson, however, has struck a different note to this softly-softly approach, suggesting that Unionists should have been more combative and “put the boot in” to the SNP in the aftermath of the 2014 vote. This comes as the Press & Journal reports SNP fears that she is being elevated to the Lords to launch high-profile attacks on them (surely a reasonable assumption).

With the Government preparing to face down the Scottish Government over control of the British internal market, and another row brewing over the proposed ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, the best that can be hoped is that Gove is speaking softly so as not to draw attention to a big, big stick. Or boot.

New parties shaking up the unionist and separatist camps in Scotland

With the possibility of a second independence referendum possibly riding on the results of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections (although it shouldn’t), the stakes are extremely high – and have tempted new entrants into the ring.

In the nationalist corner is the new Alliance for Independence. This has been set up with the express intention of gaming Holyrood’s electoral system by contesting only the list vote, attracting vast numbers of SNP second preferences, and delivering a separatist supermajority next year.

However it has already become a locus for deeper tensions within the independence movement, with Nationalist figures dissatisfied with Nicola Sturgeon’s safety-first strategy rallying to its defence. There are also concerns that it could become a vehicle for Alex Salmond to stage his next comeback.

(On a related note, the Daily Record reports that the Scottish Government is set to miss an important deadline for turning over documents to the inquiry into the debacle with the former First Minister.)

On the pro-UK side, meanwhile, is George Galloway’s Alliance 4 Unity. This is an explicitly ecumenical effort, distinct from his Workers Party GB: he has openly stated that he will work with Tories in the name of defeating the SNP, and attracted candidates from a range of backgrounds to stand under the A4U banner.

Despite that, Galloway’s big opening might be on the left, exploiting the gap in the market created by the moribund Scottish Labour Party (more below) and wooing Lab-Nat switchers tempted by the radical promises of independence supporters.

Crack in DUP unity as Foster spurs rebellion over Stormont changes

A major crack in the discipline of the Democratic Unionist Party appeared this week, when Arlene Foster found herself facing the largest Stormont rebellion in the Party’s history.

The revolt was staged over a controversial bill intended to give increased powers to individual ministers in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, the News Letter reports. The move has been pushed through by the DUP and Sinn Fein, whilst being opposed by the Ulster Unionists.

Senior DUP figures have accused the First Minister of trading away important safeguards secured for Unionism at previous negotiations. Outside observers have also suggested that it will increase the exposure of Executive decisions to legal challenge.

If this comes to pass, it will join the St Andrews Agreement in the line of Stormont fouling itself up with self-directed reform.

BBC urged to drop Sturgeon’s ‘political broadcasts’

The BBC has been urged to stop broadcasting Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus press briefings on the basis that she is using them for party political purposes.

According to the HeraldScottish Labour have demanded a meeting with the head of BBC Scotland and claim that the broadcasts are “in breach of the Charter of the BBC”. The Tories have made the same claim – in their case slightly awkwardly, as the Prime Minister is in the process of trying to set up a similar press briefing at Westminster.

Sturgeon has been accused of misrepresenting Scotland’s Covid-19 statistics, and downplaying the scandal in Scottish care homes revealed by the BBC.

Labour veteran calls on Leonard to step down ‘for the Party’

Lord Foulkes has called on Richard Leonard, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, to step aside ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament electons, the Daily Record reports.

The peer, a former MP and MSP, suggests that Jackie Baillie, the punchy and relatively right-wing deputy leader, could take over on an interim basis for the 2021 campaign.

Leonard is a left-winger who was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn. His leadership has seen a fresh waning in the Party’s fortunes, losing all but one of its MPs (again) at the 2019 election and fifth place at the final European elections. Labour are currently bumping along at 15 per cent in the Holyrood polls.

Remainers cannot re-write history: it is Covid-19, not Brexit, that challenges the Union

24 Jul

During the EU referendum campaign, it was an article of faith amongst Remainers that a vote to stay in the EU was a vote to protect the Union.

Brexiteer unionists, including those of us who wrote on the subject for this site, were accused of allowing our preoccupation with Europe to put at risk the very existence of the United Kingdom.

There are few excuses for continuing to indulge this myth in 2020. But such is its extraordinary staying power that Lewis Goodall, of Newsnight, has accrued thousands of likes for a short Twitter thread extolling this decayed orthodoxy.

This is undoubtedly a challenging period for the UK. But trying to stretch the fallout from Covid-19 to retrospectively validate the Remain position on the Union is re-writing history. So let’s set the record straight, again.

First, one can only assume that when Goodall writes that “few answers were/are forthcoming” from Brexiteer unionists about the potential impact of leaving the EU, he is not an assiduous reader of this site. We set out detailed cases for why voters should be sceptical about the doom-laden predictions of the Remain campaign in relation both to Scotland and to Wales.

Our central point was that EU membership actually made it much easier to break up the Union, both by providing a high ceiling for ongoing relations and legal harmonisation post-divorce and by laundering British cash (as a net contributor) back into Scotland and Wales as ‘EU funds’.

Disagree with this if you wish – people did – but it is therefore simply inaccurate to claim that there wasn’t a perfectly serviceable unionist justification for Brexit.

Moreover, in the years since this was borne out by events. Nicola Sturgeon came out hard for a second referendum the morning after the referendum but soon found herself beached, marooned by the failure of Scottish public opinion to follow her cue.

In fact (and again, as we covered at the time) the SNP went on to become a committed partner in the ‘Stop Brexit’ coalition precisely because they recognised how difficult Britain’s departure from the EU would make their project. The key quotation again:

“Labour could well find an ally in the Scottish Nationalists. A senior SNP figure told me this week that Scottish independence all but depends on Brexit being cancelled: without the economic safety net of the single market, Scots won’t risk a leap out of the UK. Only a second EU vote could provide that reassurance.”

The fact that more recent circumstances, specifically the massive pandemic, have revived the SNP’s fortunes should not mean that Remainers get to throw the above down the memory hole and re-write 2016-19 to bolster their original, threadbare thesis.