Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Quebec: has the sovereignty movement hit the buffers?

The dust has hardly settled on the Quebec elections and commentators in Canada and Scotland are already pronouncing the Quebecois dream of an independent francophone nation in North America well and truly dead.

Here is Scotland it is largely overjoyed Better Together supporters drawing lazy comparisons in order the provide cheap ammunition in their war against the momentum of the Yes campaign. In anglophone Canada the PQ defeat has been widely welcomed as a vote for the 'status quo' and federal Canada. The triumphalism in most Toronto based press is palpable and just a little overblown.

In Quebec the story is, in reality, just a little more complicated. True the main sovereignty party the Parti Quebecois (PQ) have been unceremoniously ditched by the electorate and replaced by a Liberal Party which itself was rejected just 18 short months ago following a series of funding and corruption scandals that are subject to an ongoing public inquiry  Astonishing really that a party whose links with allegations of corruption of its politicians and government officials could be forgiven so quickly.

When PQ leader Pauline Marois dissolved the National Assembly she was in a strong position - ahead in the polls and widely tipped to win the majority she was seeking to enact her program. It was the blocking of the PQ agenda by the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) which convinced Marois that with the polls on her side she should call a snap election.

There's a back story that's been missed by most of the commentators so far and that is the the sovereignty movement has been fractured for the past few years. When the PQ were in opposition before 2012 there were two splits that lead to breakaway parties. One was Francois Legault a former PQ front bencher who left and formed CAQ. His new party is soft on the sovereignty issue and must be pleased to see their share of seats move up in the outcome of the elections. The other splinter was Jean-Martin Aussant another former PQ front bencher who set up the small but energetic Option Nationale (ON) to ply a more strongly sovereigntist line. Aussant was an MNA (Member of the National Assembly) when he resigned from the PQ and set up ON but lost his seat in 2012 and stood down as leader in 2013. ON under the leadership of Sol Zanetti pushed a strong line this time round using the slogan 'Reveiller du courage!' and 'Independence'. Their most creditable performance this time was in Taschereau a tight PQ/Liberal marginal where Catherine Dorion resisted the squeeze on votes. There is also the left party Quebec Solidaire (QS) who seemed to play down the sovereignty message this time in favour of social justice - it paid off as the they held their previous two seats and added a third. It is also worth noting the the PQ, ON and QS all gained from the 'Maple Spring' student unrest in Quebec in 2011/12.

So what of 2014? Well the PQ had to some extent weathered the controversy around the 'Charter of Values' which sought to proscribe public servants wearing religious symbols (an issue not uncommon to several European countries) but what appears to blown the election seems to be what PQ thought would be their game changer (in a good way) - the recruiting of Quebecor media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau to run as a candidate. When he made a televised speech in his riding saying effectively Quebec should be independent the comments were pounced on by the media (the anglophone media in particular), and the opposition. The question of a new referendum then became the focus of the election and this was immediately reflected in the polls. What at the outset looked like bold leadership in calling an election when PQ were ahead in the polls quickly turned into a political and personal disaster for Marois with her party losing seats hers included and the Liberals gaining a solid majority.

The problem on the issue of sovereignty was the lack of clarity of what the PQ plans were. It may be true that large sections of the Quebec electorate are happy enough for the PQ to rule Quebec but are less ready to embrace another referendum. Marois and the PQ failed to work out their strategy on the issue in a way that could have convinced the electorate enough to trust them with another period in government. Unlike the SNP the PQ found minority government difficult, failing to achieve support for their policies and therefore unlike the SNP failed to provide the electorate the confidence in their competence in government that in Scotland allowed the SNP to build a wide enough base to achieve a majority. The other advantage that the SNP has had is its clear stance on the referendum issue - indeed the the promise of a referendum actually seemed to diffuse the independence issue in Scottish politics as the issue itself would not be decided in one election but some time after and the voters would have that choice. Lack of clarity on the referendum process and even if there would be a referendum created enough uncertainty that when the focus turned to that the wheels came of the PQ campaign bus.

Where does that leave the PQ and the sovereignty issue? Becalmed but not over would be my prediction. PQ will regroup and choose a new leader. They will draw breath and consider their platform carefully for future elections. They still have a solid group of 30 in the National Assembly as the official opposition. The other parties will reflect too - ON has already stated they will focus on developing their Independence platform. The sovereignty dream may have led to a rude awakening but the wake up call may be just what the sovereignty movement needs to find focus.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Paper Aeroplanes - Cabaret Voltaire Edinburgh 18/2/2014

I'm not entirely sure how I discovered the charms of the Paper Aeroplanes, was it some late night itunes/amazon browsing? Whatever it was I downloaded a free mp3 of 'Red Rover' and was quietly smitten, rushing off one lunch time to buy their album ‘Little Letters’. For a number of months their songs from this and their e.p.s have had regular plays around my house and on my ipod.  One of my daughters has even taken a liking to ‘Dry My Eyes’. Quite an achievement to penetrate the world of Taylor Swift and CarlyRae Jepson!

I always find it a bit of a challenge going to see new singers and bands. There’s a fear that actually I won’t get it and live they’ll disappoint. I must be mad to think that especially in relation to the Paper Aeroplanes. Sarah Howells and Richard Llewellyn were joined by a full band and they were mesmerising, reaching all shades of tone, tenderness and even attack. Yes there’s a folksiness (that’s not a bad thing) and that is crossed with a pure pop sensibility which captures you and captivates.  They have huge melodies, wistful reflective lyrics and several songs which in a fairer world would be huge hits. ‘Skies on Fire’ exemplifies that perfectly – a huge tune that would connect with any crowd and deserves to connect to a bigger crowd than were gathered tonight. @sarahaeroplane 

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

End of the Green Belt line?

You might not have heard of the Edinburgh Local Development Plan (LDP) or the Strategic Development Planning Authority for Edinburgh and South East Scotland (SESplan) and its Supplementary Planning Guidance. Both of these strategic planning documents and the potential implications that flow from them not only could but in my view will lead to the destruction of Edinburgh's green belt and creation of car dominated suburban sprawl.

The crux of the matter is the perception that Edinburgh needs to encroach on its green belt to provide housing for its growing population. But hang on a minute I hear you say what about the Waterfront developments which were to provide Edinburgh with a 21st Century new town accommodating a population the size of Falkirk? Ah, well say the planners Forth Ports was taken over and the new owners want to concentrate on port activity and related industrial uses at Leith. There will still be houses but fewer of them and anyway the volume housing developers prefer to develop green field sites - its cheaper you see and consequently provides shareholders with greater profits. Simple really. The developers bleat on about the development economics of developing land which is now 'too expensive' while quite happily raising the value of agricultural land around the City fringe making land owners rich and providing their own profit margins. But don't worry it's alright because they are providing 'much needed' housing for the city.

Is this really the way to map out Edinburgh's future shape and how people live in this great city? Is there another way of coping with housing demand and strengthening the communities of the city in a way that is more sustainable. Part of the joke of the proposed expansion into the green belt at Cammo and Maybury is that people are told that the cars will stay at home as people flock to the Trams. It's an argument trumpeted in David Murray's contra plan to put over 3000 houses in the so-called 'Garden District' at Hermiston. It's a joke and the planners know it - the volume of cars on the roads in these areas will increase without the problems that already exist with congestion on routes into the city being solved.

The time is overdue for a wide ranging public debate on what the city should look like - how can the value of the dormant brownfield sites be unlocked, what density should housing be built to, can the city build truly green eco housing for the future, can we adjust our thinking away from dormitory zoning where people live at a) and work at z) resulting in travelling across town or region, is there a future for the green belt, can improved public transport and the routes they use answer the transit problems.

It would seem that the planning system as it exists is not minded to allow the space to think out a future as it lurches from one plan to another - the recent City Local Plan and Rural West Edinburgh Local Plan which are supposed to be in force and guide planning decisions already seem to be superseded by the as yet unadopted Local Development Plan. No sooner will that LDP be in place than work will begin on it's successor. These are not so much plans but transitional enablers of contradictory development. The process resembles a box ticking exercise that neither considers the neighbourhoods its creating nor the communities affected.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Stifled? 'A Happy New Year for Democracy'

A Labour party member recently told me that the Scottish Labour Party has never had an internal debate or discussion on the independence question. The line - anti-independence - had merely been established by the leadership and imposed locally. It is assumed all members will support the ‘Better Together’ campaign and pitch up to leaflet when they are told. Local discussion on the matter in branches is frowned upon if not entirely extinguished.

You could say ‘what do they expect?’ however like many on the left but not in the Labour party some Labour members might actually prefer independence to the union. Like many on the left they may feel that breaking the mould of ‘British’ politics is not just the way to build the progressive society they want in Scotland but also a means to awaken radical democratic change in England too.

Machine politics has stifled this home rule thread of Scottish Labour thought. Much has been made of people like Charles Gray, Alex Mosson and John Mulvey joining the YES campaign. All former local government leadership figures now retired and pointing the way to independence. Where are the current Labour politicians espousing independence and a YES vote? In the main they are cowed and careful. Some no doubt quietly threatened with deselection keep the head down. The exception was former Labour Councillor Alex Lunn in Edinburgh but he found he couldn’t campaign for independence from the Labour benches and jumped ship to the SNP.

You could say this is all conspiracy and Labour is a democratic organisation that lauds free-speech. Maybe it is but it doesn’t look like that from the outside and from testimony isn’t like that internally particularly when it comes to Scottish Independence.

So it was a brave man in Dave Pickering erstwhile reporter with the North Edinburgh News a community newspaper serving Granton Pilton Muirhouse & Drylaw when he posted an article on their website on the 12 January ‘A Happy New Year for Democracy’ where he articulated his reasons for supporting a YES vote. The article is brave and honest and reflected what a lot of Labour and ex-Labour voters have to say about their party, parliamentary politics and the opportunities of independence. The article promptly disappeared later that day and it seems along with it the North Edinburgh News twitter account - searching for @northednews_NEN brings an internal server message. Tweets to the author and the Chair of the board of the North Edinburgh News, Martin Hinds (also Chair of Edinburgh Labour's Campaign Forum) have so far gone unanswered. The article has been found cached here

The sad thing is that I know Dave Pickering from my time as a Councillor and he always seemed like a fair guy a Labour stalwart sure but nothing wrong with that. Maybe he had second thoughts, maybe he was asked to think again. Whatever the story is and I sincerely hope we find out what it is the article is testament to generations of Labour members and indeed Scots who see in the independence referendum a route to a new Scotland. A Scotland that chimes with the ideals they hold close.

Update: since the post above was published Dave Pickering's article has been republished on Really glad the article has appeared again.