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Does Eastern Europe have lessons for Brexit Britain?

Vote_Leave_-_geograph.org.uk_-_5002468

Photo Bob Harvey, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In the aftermath of the EU referendum a number of Central and South East Europeanists wrote blogs reflecting on possible parallels between Brexit and break-ups of multinational socialist states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in early 1990s.

There are certainly parallels to be drawn.  They lie, as Catherine Baker notes, often in the political dynamics of exiting a large multi-national structure: the desire of smaller nations (Scotland) to ‘exit the exit’; the woes of asymmetric federalism, where nations ina multinational union have varying degrees of autonomy; the changeable nature of public opinion; the EU as a symbol of modernisation and liberalism (the ‘March for Europe’, and the normalisation of  radical positions through by media coverage – and now social media ‘echo chambers;.

Scotland’s (now much more likely) exit from the UK – as noted in the lead-in to #indyref – had echoes not only of Yugoslavia’s disintegration or Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1992 but also – more distantly, but perhaps more pertinently –  of the dilemmas faced by small, newly independent Central European states emerging from the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Read More…

Use your Ed? How I put Miliband into Number 10 (just)

I’ve long been a fan of 270Soft’s election simulation games: President Forever allowing you to replay US presidential contests (including primaries) both historically and for 2016 and Prime Minister Forever which translates the format for British general elections.

There are also versions for Canadian, Australian and German parliamenary elections.  So I was delighted to get an early release of Prime Minister Infinity, which allows you to simulate the forthcoming UK general 2015 election with party and strategy of your choice.

The game is essentially an exercise in positioning and managing and deploying resources – realistic enough many political scientists would say – which entails framing your platform and picking your campaign themes; targeting your leader’s campaigning, debate preparation and issue knowledge; and planning your advertising. Needless to say Events-Dear-Boy can intervene  and you also get to spend of your precious time and resources spinning good or bad news.

Anyone familiar with President Forever and its spinoffs will find the game quick enough  to pick up, although options and gameplay have become more complex compared to the earlier Prime Minister Forever –  especially with the provision for much more detailed constitutency-level campaigning. Few real political devotees would probably mind this, although it makes for a longer a game (2-3 hours) and anyone serious political geeks could probably spend a couple of days carefully scanning the marginals and the polls before plotting their next move (the game has daily turns from early January untill May 5 Polling Day.

Anyone not familiar with the 270.soft stable of games will probably have steeper learning curve or might want to have a crack at President Foreover where you have a mere 50 states, to range over rather than 650 constiuencies, although PM Infinity does provide helpful regional summary which simplify your task a bit.

Relishing a challenge and wanting to have a real chance of power, I stepped into the shoes of Ed Milliband with the computer playing the part of the other parties (including a small rather unrealistic bloc of Independents who I probably should have turned off at the start – they eventually won four seats). Read More…

Is ‘Scotland’s Future’ from Central Europe’s past?

Scottish Flag - detail

Photo: Endrick Shelleycoat via Wikimedia Commons

In a special guest post Kieran Williams reflects on the lessons for the SNP’s project of Scottish independence to be learned from the making and unmaking of Czechoslovakia.

The Scottish government’s glimpse of the future in an independent state was a trip down memory lane for those of us who remember the breakup of the Central and East European federations.

To be sure, the White Paper released on 26 November is a far more thorough and thoughtful rationale than anything that could be composed as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia unraveled. It is also relies more on inclusive civic principles – statehood desired as a means to a fairer and more competent administration – than on the discourse of national destiny heard in the former Soviet bloc twenty years ago.

But here and there amidst the 650 answers of ‘Scotland’s Future’, I caught a strong whiff from the archives of Central Europe, in particular of Slovakia, a country easily compared to Scotland owing to almost identical population size (5.3 million), exceptionally large proportion of university graduates, highland-lowland range, and so on. I was reminded in particular of documents like the ‘61 Steps to Slovak Identity’, released in October 1990 by lawyers and economists of the ‘Sovereign Slovakia’ Initiative, and the manifesto of Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) for the 1992 election, the last held before Czechoslovakia was dissolved. Read More…

Getting the name right?

What do you do if you’re a fading historic right-wing party in a small  northern European country with a strong, broadly  social-democratic political culture?

For the Scottish Conservatives, whose  secular decline despite the electoral bounce- back of 2010 in England and Wales is catalogued by a recent IPPR report, the answer would seem be to dissolve and rebrand as a new more modern, more appealing centre-right formation.

That at least is the idea of leadership contender Murdo Fraser (one floated as early 2007)- and one looked at with quiet sympathy by London Tories around David Cameron who basically buy in to the idea the Conservative identity is too toxic and too undermined by social change and the decline of political identities shaped by religion and Empire to be redeemable. Better a strong, autonomous allied party better than enfeebled rump.

But what – assuming Mr Fraser gets his way – would such a party be called?And what would it imply? Perhaps  in time the drawing in of pro-market elements of the Liberals or the SNP.

We know one thing. The new would include the word ‘Scottish’ and not include the word ‘Conservative’. But where to go from there?

Perhaps take inspiration from the Anglosphere?

The  main party of centre-right in New Zealand is the National Party, but that label is clearly not available. in Scotland

Canada has the Progressive Conservatives, but the ‘C’ word is out and Progressive tag (Scottish Progressives? Progressive Democrats?)  alone might be a linguistic modernisation too far, even in this age of political cross dressing. I guess,  still following Canadian politics, the label Reform might be a possibility.

After all, the Tories European Parliament Group – where this new party’s MEPs (if it won any) would sit – is called the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR). So perhaps Scottish Reform Party? Tory bloggers liked this idea. On the other hand, the label does have vaguely religious echos, which might be a bad idea given Scotland’s sectarian history.

Perhaps the Scandinavian right might offer inspiration.  Sweden has the Moderates (as does Estonia)  but I suspect the Scottish Moderates would not do well and might provoke a few guffaws given the Tories’ history of hot gospelling Thatcherism in Scotland in 1980s.

Iceland, of course, has the Independence Party – a pragmatic  fusion of Liberals and Conservatives , take note – but somehow that might not strike the right note in Scotland… And besides UKIP seems have baggsied the Independence label.

Some Scottish Tories also toyed, it seems, with the idea of becoming the Freedom Party, although this rather in-your-face label has only been successfully used by Geert Wilders anti-Islamic outfit in Holland and the late Joerg Haider’s radical right grouping in Austria and is more associated with European liberal parties.  Beside Scottish Freedom Party, sounds somewhat like a more radical version of the SNP.

Perhaps  Central and East European politics then?  After all, the dissolve-rebrand-and-reinvent formula was tried by a number of discredited former ruling (communist)  parties there.

However,   as even the most rapid Tory-phobe would admit,  we not talking about a bunch of ex- totalitarians, so it’s really the CEE right we should be looking. Here the word ‘Democratic’ seems to be the main label on office (Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic, Slovene Democrats, Bulgaria’s Union of Democratic Forces (as was)) – as well as general avoidance of the word ‘Party’.

Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria

So that would leave is with Scottish Democrats or Scottish Democratic Union (handy echoes of the Unionist tag, the Scottish Tories historically used until 1965  and which, oddly, seems a favoured option, despite stressing the English link and having slight undertones of Northern Irish protestant politics)

Unless,  like many a Central European and Scandinavian conservative, they started to think less in party terms and more in terms of alliance-making.  Slovakia had its Blue Coalition, Denmark its Blue Alliance.

Which perhaps begs the question of where the ranks of this new centre-right in this increasingly politically far away country called Scotland would come from.

>"Confidence and Supply": Czechs ahead of Kiwis?

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Much talk in relation to Scotland of the signing of a possible ‘confidence and supply’ agreement in which a party – possibly the Lib Dems in Scotland – agrees to enable another party to take (and remain) in office as a minority administration and pass a budget, without concluding formal coalition and forcing ad hoc agreement on parliamentary votes on most other issues. This draws on the New Zealand experience of 2005 when a Confidence and Supply Agreement was signed between two minor parties, New Zealand First and United Future, and the Labor Party to enable the latter to stay in office, having suffered losses in the election to a resurgent National Party.
Briefly reading through the agreement with NZ First (link above), it seems damn similar in conception and even specific provision to the Opposition Agreement signed seven years earlier in the Czech Republic in 1998, also to allow a minority Social Democrat government to take office. The Czech Social Democrats were then very much an untried force, rather like the SNP and like the SNP had emerged as winner of an election with a perceived moral right to take office. Much slated at the time as clientelistic stitch-up between the two big parties, as Andrew Roberts has persuasively argued in Europe-Asia Studies in 2003 it worked rather well. Certainly, the Czechs shaped up for EU accession without too much problem. The Agreement is, however, seen as totally discredited in Czech politics today and ‘confidence and supply’ was very much off the agenda after the deadlocked elections on 2006, although I guess the problem was that it would again have required agreement between the two main parties after a polzrized and brusing election campaign. As if Labour were to provide ‘confidence and supply’ to the SNP.

>Scotland: the red and the grey

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Well, as the polls anticipated Scotland’s minor parties including the fledging pensioners’ party were comprehensively dished by larger parties and in particular the Scots Nats who at first glance appear to have hovered up the voters previously garnered by Greens, Scottish Socialists and (on a more minor scale) John Swinburne’s pensioner’s party. Only the Greens – the most established and robust of minor parties hung on in the Scottish Parliament with two MSPs (down five). Looked at more closely – and course I was as I was checking out the pensioners’ party – there is a slightly more complex picture.

The Scottish Socialists (SSP) had split into two rival factions after party leader Tommy Sheridan’s apparent predilection for group sex and swingers’ clubs (and implausible sounding denials of subsequent tabloid revelations) disenchanted some of his former comrades, although he did rather unexpectedly win damages at a libel trial, seemingly through sheer force of personality. Electorally speaking, Sheridan’s Solidarity party came out on top over the official SSP but the combined far-left vote was down to a mere 2.1%, more than halved, suggesting that former voters had, for whatever reason had, indeed plumped for the Scots Nats.

This tends to suggest that charismatic populist leadership always mattered far more these than socialist ideology that preoccupied the sundry Trotskyist groups that managed to merge in Scotland in 1997. Further South George Galloway, leader of the anti-war leftist/Muslim Respect party (which is where the English SWP ended up) – another libel trial winner with an egocentric flair for self-promotion seems to be a politician in the same mould. Although his ability to keep his trousers is not in doubt, his sense of overconfident invulnerability also tripped him up, as dressing up in a leotard and pretending to be a cat on Big Brother was probably hard to sell to comrades and brothers as one of the many (meowing?) voices of anti-capitalism.

On the other hand, both Sheridan and Galloway are pretty canny and effective political operators, whose chutzpah and outrageous media bravura have to draw a certain admiration even from the sceptically and unsympathetic (like me) and so perhaps the first of a new breed of semi-celebrity egomaniac left-wing populists, part-celebrity, part stand-up comedian, part politician. Ken Livingstone is perhaps a clever and more successful example. The idea of new ‘left-wing populism’ has recently been developed in more academic terms by Luke March in a recent issue of SAIS Review, although I don’t think he covers the celebrity, sex and leotards angles.

To return to Grey politics, the Scottish Senior Citizens’ Unity Party (SSCUP) despite fielding almost a full set of regional lists and lost it single MSP, John Swinburne. Following the logic of the two-part electoral system as they had in 2003, the SSCUP like the Greens, the two socialist parties and all other minor parties apart from the Scottish Chrisitan Party more or less ignored the single member constituencies entirely and concentrated entirely on the regional list element, where seats are allocated using the Additional Member system which compensates parties with large support who have done poorly in the single member constituencies. This was presumably knowing they had no chance of winning and might inadvertently let in parties they disliked by splitting the vote and it was also logical because a canny voter using their second regional for a minor party might in fact be more likely to elect someone by using their regional vote for a minor party than rather big party that had already gained lots of MSPs elected in the single member contest in a region region. The SSCUP (like the Greens and SSP) actually only fielded one only one candidate in the first-past-the-post contests – party leader John Swinburne in Motherwell, who urged voters to back Labour in first-past-the-post contests (a self-chosen role of support party to the traditional centre-left that pensioners’ parties elsewhere in Europe not infrequently try to play).

Totting up the regional list vote the SSCUP did not do totally disastrously – nationally it came to 1.90% as opposed to 1.5% in 2003 with a growth in absolute number of votes polled from 28, 996 to 38,743, although turnout was up from 49.4% in 2003 to 51.8% the party did this time field lists in all eight regions (as opposed to three in 2003). So, no national breakthrough for tartan grey power, but a score that does put the SSCUP in the same bracket as other established fringe grey parties in Germany or Scandinavia, which pull in 1-2% of the national vote. The SSCUP came in as the most important extra parliamentary party nationally, although admittedly in a Scottish context that does mean being the sixth party.

Swinburne’s failure to re-enter Holyrood basically stemmed from a failure to see his personal vote in the single member Motherwell constituency – 6.51% and 1702 votes, slightly better than 1597 votes (6.29%) he got in 2003 – reflected as enough of a regional vote to gain one of the top-up-seats. In 2003 the SSCUP list in Central Scotland headed by Swinburne got 17, 146 votes (6.52%), this time a mere 7060 votes (2.48%). Basically, the Scottish Greys seemed to have tried too hard to be a national party, rather than focusing their limited resources on a few promising regions.

It will be interesting to see whether the SSCUP will now keep going, which I suspect will depend on the party funding regime, whether Swinburne stays on in politics and whether a new leader emerges – simple life expectancy statistics would seem to suggest that even if they overcome electoral hurdle pensioner politicians may have a limited career. Swinburne is 76. On the other hand, the leader of the German Grey Panthers Trude Unruh led the group (which founded in 1975 when she was in her fifties) for more than three decades before her recent death aged 80.