Cameron's state of the union flop

The SNP will be delighted with the Prime Minister's lacklustre speech in Edinburgh.

Even before David Cameron delivered his speech in defence of the union in Edinburgh this afternoon, the Scottish National Party had already dismissed it as "threadbare and outdated". In retrospect, the nationalists could have added "ill-informed" and "underwhelming" and they still would have fallen slightly short of the mark.
 
It's safe to say that the Prime Minister's attempt today to develop a positive case for Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom probably won't be remembered as one of the turning points in the debate about Scotland's constitutional future.
 
On the contrary, Cameron gave the distinct impression of someone who hadn't seriously examined his opponent's arguments. At times, in fact, he gave the impression of someone who hadn't really examined his own. "Scotland", he said, "is richer and fairer as part of the UK". But the facts simply don't back this up. Over the last 35 - 40 years, North Sea oil production has generated as much as £300bn in tax revenues for the UK Exchequer, yet Scottish rates of income inequality have skyrocketed while social mobility has stagnated. Only a Home Counties Conservative could describe that as "fair".
 
The emotive elements of Cameron's address were similarly unpersuasive. "The link between our nations is a precious thing. It's about our history, our values, our shared identity". Well, of course. But just because two nations share some sense of an identity it doesn't mean they should also share a government, a parliament or a constitution. Few would deny the strength of the cultural relationship between Britain and Ireland. Fewer still believe the latter should re-join the UK because of it. Indeed, from a nationalist perspective, Cameron's decision to emphasise the common historical experiences of the Scots and the English will be seen as an indication of the intellectual weakness of unionism. Alex Salmond knows that the referendum will be won or lost on political and economic, rather than sentimental, grounds. Unionists should be worried that their leaders have not yet come to the same realisation.
 
Worse still, in claiming that the provisions contained within the Scotland Bill would give the Scottish Parliament tax raising powers "for the first time", Cameron revealed his poor grasp of the details of the current devolutionary settlement. Holyrood already has the power to vary income tax rates by 3p in the pound.
 
In reality, nationalists are quietly delighted with Cameron's apparent eagerness to be involved in the referendum campaign. The Tory brand remains contaminated north of the border and, since Thatcher, attempts by the Conservative Party to influence Scottish opinion have come across as hectoring and belligerent. What's more, every trip Cameron makes to Scotland serves as a reminder of how thin his mandate in the country is. It is common knowledge that support for the Tories in Scotland has fallen steadily over the last six decades. It less well known that if the coalition survives for the duration of this parliamentary session, Scots will have spent almost as many post-war years ruled by Westminster governments they didn't vote for as those they did.
 
This "democratic deficit" was one of a number of important issues Cameron failed to mention in Edinburgh today. But why would he? Before it became apparent that the union was genuinely under threat, the Tory leader had shown little interest in -- and therefore developed little understanding of -- Scotland and Scottish affairs. That absence of understanding -- on full display earlier -- will do the unionists no favours as the 2014 vote draws closer. Don't be surprised if Salmond is already busy trying to arrange the next the prime ministerial visit.
 

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times