Will the Severn Bridge become an international border, too? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Operation disintegration: has the Scotland debate made regional parties smell blood?

Time for a separate Cornish state, or an English First Minister? How about a breakaway Wales, or resurrecting Wessex? The UK's regional parties reflect on what the Scottish independence debate means for them.

Only a few weeks ago many were convinced Scottish independence was a impossibility. But a shock YouGov poll at the weekend that put the Yes campaign in the lead for the first time, published by the Sunday Times, has meant everyone is waking up to the idea that the people of Scotland could very well choose to leave the UK on 18 September. The other regionalist parties of Great Britain are particularly keen observers.

“There is a growing recognition that the extremities [of the UK] are beginning to move away,” Richard Carter, leader of the Yorkshire First party, tells the New Statesman. “But independence is the wrong solution – an argument about borders doesn’t make sense in our interconnected world.”

Yorkshire First was only set up in March of this year, but two months later it won over 19,000 votes in the European elections in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Clearly it has managed to capture the anti-Westminster, localist mood that has become prevalent across swathes of the UK.

The far more established Plaid Cymru, which, in the long term, seeks full independence for Wales, are watching the referendum intently. Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, is currently in Scotland helping out with the Yes campaign. She tells the New Statesman: “What’s incredibly interesting is that the Yes campaign is a truly grassroots movement. People are really informed – I’ve never seen this level of engagement before. Chatting to taxi drivers about polls in the FT is a common experience!”

Wood is partly there to see what tactics she can take back to Wales. She highlights the cross-societal aspect of the Yes campaign as particularly effective: “There’s been a deliberate attempt to have people involved who aren’t aligned with political parties. It’s not just the same old characters.”

The Scottish referendum is being greeted with similar interest by Dick Cole, leader of Mebyon Kernow, a centre-left party that campaigns for a National Assembly for Cornwall: “What’s happening in Scotland gives us hope, even though we’re campaigning for devolution, not independence. For us, it’s about getting some devolution to the Cornish people – at the moment where there is devolution, it’s to LEPs [Local Enterprise Partnerships] and quangos, and that’s not very democratic.”

Cole has also recently been on a trip to Scotland: he was invited to speak on the implications of the referendum at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. He likewise came back surprised by how involved so many Scots are. “The impression I got was that there’s such an engaged debate, and we’re really jealous of that.”

Membership enquiries for the Wessex Regionalist Party are on the increase, according to general secretary David Robins. “It’s affecting us very positively. Scottish independence will cause a rethink of British politics – whichever way it goes, we feel we’ll be able to benefit from it.”

The Wessex Regionalist Party, formed in the Seventies, campaigns for powers to be devolved from Westminster to Wessex, an area it defines as the southwest of England, excluding Cornwall, but including Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. “I don’t think we’d ever want independence,” Robins says. “We value the English context.”

The most dramatic sentiments come from Robin Tilbrook, chair of the English Democrats, a party that once campaigned for the establishment of an English Parliament and First Minister in imitation of the Scottish and Welsh models. It now fights for England to become an independent country – “over time we’ve become jaundiced at the idea the UK could be reformable as a proper democratic country.”

Tilbrook, a practising litigation solicitor, says that the dissolution of the Act of Union, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland in 1707, would mean not just that Scotland left the UK, but that the UK would no longer exist. “As a lawyer it makes no sense to speak of the UK if Scotland leaves.” The 1801 Acts of Union, which joined Ireland to Great Britain, would also become invalid: “Great Britain was a term invented to include Scotland, legally and linguistically.”

“The referendum debate certainly justifies much of what we've been saying,” he says, happily. “England will be almost independent as a consequence of this, although the union with Wales isn’t dissolved.”

Tilbrook has also been on the lookout for Yes campaign tactics that could be used by the English Democrats. “A couple of their supporters gave £5m to the Yes Campaign,” he says, referring to Chris and Colin Weir, before continuing with a chuckle: “If we had £5m, that would do no end of good.”

Alexander Woolley is a freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter as @alexwoolley4.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.