The Future Direction of Democratic Debate

15 Sep

Throughout the referendum campaign – and over the past few weeks in particular – the focus of almost every major news outlet in Britain has been on the activity of international financial markets and statements issued by senior figures in multinational corporations.

As the story goes, short term fluctuations in the share prices of international companies such as RBS and Lloyds should be factored in to the decision making process of each and every person with a vote this Thursday. Furthermore, statements made by senior figures in organisations that have premises and staff in Scotland should not only be considered as part of an overall weighing in the balance of the great many issues involved, they should form the very basis of the discussion as a whole.

The great problem with all of this, as I see it anyway, is where this now leaves the state of democratic debate moving forward.

If the public now wishes to conduct the democratic process under these conditions, as large sections of the Better Together campaign seem to do, then we must be prepared to face up to the logical and probable consequences that will flow from such a decision.

For starters, if share price volatility and the statements of unelected CEOs of multinational corporations are now to be factored in to the decision making process of each and every citizen in a democratic society, why bother having political debate at all?

Why not instead simply allow Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems to put out their manifestos and see which one pleases big business most? We could simply post the 3 manifestos to the boards of FTSE 100 companies and ask them to endorse 1 of the 3. We would then inform the public that big business is in favour of the Labour manifesto for the next 5 years and that a vote for Conservative or Lib Dems would make them seriously consider leaving the country or increasing their prices.

Is that really the kind of democratic society that anyone wants?

I am fully aware that this kind of talk is open to accusations of gross exaggeration here. But before simply dismissing it, let’s just look at the situation on the ground.

Last week shares in some large Scottish based corporations suffered a small drop in price after one poll showed that the Yes campaign was in the lead. Absolute pandemonium broke out on every major news channel on TV as dire warnings were issued to the Scottish people about the extreme damage that could be done to the economy if there was a Yes vote. 24 hour rolling news coverage relentlessly pursued the story that this small drop in prices was a sign that a much bigger financial meltdown would hit Scotland if the electorate were to inconceivably vote the “wrong way” in a democratic referendum.

The share prices returned to normal on Tuesday.

But by that time the major UK newspapers had gone to print with front page headlines that gave off the impression that the entire Scottish economy was on the precipice of a 2007 style meltdown, all because of 1 opinion poll taken from a sample of around 1000 people amongst an electorate of over 4 million registered voters.

The message from across the media has therefore been clear: unelected CEOs in some businesses are concerned about independence and share prices have fluctuated on international markets (which, by the way, I had always thought they were meant to do), therefore the people of Scotland should vote No.

You will notice here that this message has absolutely nothing to do with democracy. There exists no link between this line of argument and the idea of government of the people, by the people, for the people. The question of whether or not the people of Scotland should take full control over the governance of their country for generations to come has been entirely eradicated and replaced by considerations of how some economic entities may or may not act in the short to medium term.

But it’s not just within the context of the Scottish Independence referendum that the democratic will of the people could be treated as something of a secondary consideration to corporate interests.

Britain is likely to hold a referendum on whether or not it should stay in the European Union at some point in the next few years and it is with this in mind that I draw your attention to what is surely the most glaring inconsistency in both political rhetoric and editorial policy in modern times.

For years now, the front pages of several right wing UK newspapers have focused on what they perceive to be the EU’s implicit – and sometimes even explicit – crusade to destroy nation state democracy and replace it with a European federal super state.

It’s nonsense of course but the line taken on this by the vehemently eurosceptic British press has been that the British people deserve a say on whether or not they want their country to be a part of this organisation anymore.

Power rests with the British electorate, as the argument goes, and to prevent them from having a say on the EU question is an affront to democracy.

There is a huge problem here.

The vast majority of news outlets who have provided us with wall to wall coverage of CEO warning statements and share price volatility during the Scottish independence campaign are the exact same news outlets who are strongly in favour of the UK leaving the EU via an In/ Out referendum.

But in response to the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, several business leaders and neoliberal think tanks have warned that this would be an unmitigated disaster for the British economy. Companies would leave, jobs would be lost, international influence decline and British goods might be subject to tariffs when being exported to the continent.

All of this has been said already and you can be absolutely certain that as the prospect of an In/Out referendum on Britain’s EU membership increases, the idea that Britain could leave Europe will bring about the exact same voices of fear, doom and depression from the world of FTSE 100 CEOs and the uncertainty will also impact the share price of many British companies.

But what on earth will the mainstream media do then? They cannot possibly urge the Scottish people on an almost hourly basis to heed the warnings of the international markets when considering independence only to then dismiss these concerns when it comes to the British people’s vote on EU membership.
But this is exactly what will happen.

The vast majority of news outlets in Britain will go from treating Corporate CEOs as the golden boys of the Better Together campaign in 2014 to portraying them as the most untrustworthy, scheming, self interested and illegitimate people in public life when Britain’s EU membership comes up for discussion next year.

Nigel Farage will, of course, be at the forefront of this campaign against the undemocratic interference in the democratic process of the nation. He will rant “How dare these international financiers who crashed the world economy try and tell the ordinary man in the street that they should vote to stay in the EU?” He will rave “Surely this is a matter for the British people to decide?” And when he says “I do not think that the industry that gave us Fred Goodwin carries any credibility in the eyes of the average British voter”, the British press will give a unanimously favourable write up.

But wait! Isn’t this the same press that has been relentlessly telling Scots that they should vote against the economic uncertainty and financial instability that would come with a Yes vote? Aren’t these the same newspapers that dismiss the claim that there would be a huge drop in GDP if the UK left the EU as scaremongering but thinks that the relocation of a registered head office from Edinburgh to London is worthy of an in-depth discussion?

What on earth is going on here?

Surely we cannot have it both ways. We either admit the whims and aspirations of multinational corporations who are under no obligation or duty of loyalty to anyone but their shareholders into the democratic decision making process or we do not.

It cannot be one way for Scotland in 2014 and then the complete opposite when it comes to a referendum on EU membership or any other major democratic decision in the next few years.

Those who have sought to campaign for a No vote on the basis of stock market volatility and corporate interests rather than constructing an argument about the purpose and direction of the United Kingdom and how it could best cater for the needs of its people have not only failed to make a persuasive case, they have also suggested that future political questions should be conducted in the shadow of considerations of economic coercion.

If this is indeed how they now feel, they should be bold enough to admit that this is the way in which they want things to move forward and accept that the era in which politics was a means through which ordinary people could try to tame the market is now over.

The question being posed on Thursday is simply this: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” There is no mention of banks on the ballot paper. There will be no table of share prices in the voting booth. Sky News will not be interviewing someone from ASDA in the background.

We are being asked to consider whether or not future generations of Scots should be given the right to direct democratic representation.

It is a matter of principle not pence.

This Thursday, for the first time in history, absolute sovereign power will lie in the hands of the Scottish people and nobody else.

The choice will be whether the people of Scotland choose to keep that power or give it back.


Is This Really The Best We Can Do?

9 Sep

The State of Britain Today

In Britain we have some of the lowest pensions in Europe.

This means that people retire in the UK with relatively less support than people of retirement age living almost anywhere on the continent including places like Slovenia and Hungary.

That’s right, citizens living in almost any other EU member state, including some that Nigel Farage constantly reminds us resemble third world countries, get a better deal upon retirement than my grandparents.

In Britain there is widespread media coverage of a potential “crisis” when multinational corporations worth millions of pounds suffer a small drop in share price on a Monday and then stabilize on a Tuesday.

In Britain news that a graduate from St. Andrews University is expecting to give birth to her second child in less than 9 months time dominates the news agenda while the following paragraph can only be found buried in the middle pages of a UK newspaper:

“The coroner said that when David Clapson died he had no food in his stomach. Clapson’s benefits had been stopped as a result of missing one meeting at the job centre. He was diabetic, and without the £71.70 a week from his jobseeker’s allowance he couldn’t afford to eat or put credit on his electricity card to keep the fridge where he kept his insulin working. Three weeks later Clapson died from diabetic ketoacidosis, caused by a severe lack of insulin. A pile of CVs was found next to his body.”

In Britain 1/3 of all disabled adults aged between 25 and retirement age are living in poverty and – as that well known Scottish Nationalist Stephen Fry has tried to draw attention to – support for those who are likely to be under 25 and in education has just been cut further by the government in Westminster.

In response to criticism of this truly dire state of affairs, the official government line has consistently been that we live in an era of austerity politics in which cuts to public services are the norm because – in case you didn’t know – there simply is no alternative. We are in mountains of debt and we can’t afford better support for the disabled or pensions for the elderly.

But hang on a minute! Every other major nation in Europe is struggling with the same problems as Britain and yet they find the means to provide better support for those in need.

How do they manage it? Why are the masters of the British economy not privy to the same magic formula as those in office in places like Slovakia, Malta or Estonia? We don’t even need to take the often cited Scandinavian model as a comparison here to show just how bad things are in Britain. We are amongst worst in Europe for pensions and have one of the worst records on poverty amongst the disabled anywhere in the developed world.

Almost anything could be better.

And while I’m in the mood for asking questions, how come we have a growing economy and remain one of the world’s richest countries but can’t even begin to discuss alleviating the struggle faced by disabled people or impoverished pensioners for fear of being labelled “economically irresponsible?”

Surely that’s the bigger problem isn’t it? Extreme poverty amongst the most vulnerable people in society is one thing; but not having an opposition party in politics to even suggest they would reverse the cuts for fear of looking incompetent is even worse.

Is There Really No Such Thing as Society?

Societies should be judged on how well they treat and provide for their most vulnerable citizens.

I am not one of the Thatcher “there is no such thing as society” and “let us glory in our inequality” brigade.

I believe there is such a thing as society and, at present, ours must be judged as being fundamentally flawed.

If we are destined to live in an economic environment that requires an adaptable and flexible workforce, then those who are unable to participate in that economy for reasons out with their own control must be protected from a life of poverty and misery.

Just as everyone is expected to be flexible and adaptable in order to meet the demands of the modern economy, everyone is, in theory, equally at risk of being excluded by virtue of being human.

As a society, then, we can choose to take the collective decision to insure not only the most vulnerable in society, but all of us collectively, against this exclusion risk by democratically allocating our resources to help in times of need.

Alternatively, we can decide to accept that we live in a survival of the fittest world in which some people can cope with being excluded more than others (e.g. because they are in good health, they have been able to earn more money, they were born into a well off family etc.) and thus we should not bother ourselves with anything but our own immediate interests.

Nietzsche would phrase this, admittedly rather dramatically, as:

“All-too-many are born: for the superfluous the state was invented.”

HL Menken also offers us an insight into this kind of thinking:

“There must be a complete surrender to the law of natural selection – that invariable natural law which ordains that the fit shall survive and the unfit shall perish. All growth must occur at the top. The strong must grow stronger, and that they may do so, they must waste no strength in the vain task of trying to lift up the weak.”

At present, there can be little doubt that Britain is on a seemingly unstoppable path towards rampant individualism. Not only do we have some of the worst levels of state support in Europe for disabled people and pensioners, that level of support is being cut further WITHOUT protest from our nation’s main political parties.

The point is simply this: Britain no longer has the capacity to change. There is no appetite amongst the political classes in Britain to improve the truly dire conditions being faced by some of the most vulnerable people in society. Even the media have given up reporting on anything that deviates from the Westminster consensus. The government has announced that Billions of cuts are yet to come, many of which disproportionately affect the poor and the disabled, and the opposition just sits there and nods in agreement.

But there are of course alternatives. On pensions alone there are at least 20+ other ways of doing things in the European Union – each one of them better than Britain.

Is there an Alternative?

In Scotland we have a chance.

We have an opportunity to at least try something different and show those struggling across Britain that it doesn’t have to be like this.

While there are of course many arguments setting out how Scotland would be financially better off after independence, it is perhaps best to first look at statements made by those who oppose a Yes vote first.

On several occasions during the referendum campaign Alastair Darling, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Geroge Osborne, Danny Alexander and every other senior figure on the Better Together side have unambiguously stated that an independent Scotland would be economically successful. Of course, their fundamental belief is that Scotland would be better off in the UK and they are trying their best to illustrate why that is so; but none of them have ever suggested that Scotland would descend into the economic abyss.

But now consider the Yes argument too.

In addition to Scotland’s geographical share of oil and gas revenues, the Scottish Parliament in an independent Scotland would have full powers over, amongst other things: VAT, national insurance, corporation tax, fuel duties, inheritance tax, tobacco duties, interest and dividends, alcohol duties, vehicle excise duty, capital gains tax, inheritance tax, insurance premier tax, air passenger duty, betting and gaming duties, climate change levy, aggregates levy, the crown estates and the ability to issue government bonds.

And on top of all that, think about what could be done with:

– A properly tailored industrial policy to suit the specific needs of Scottish business and enterprise as opposed to one that is dominated by conditions in the South East of England.

– The wealth creating potential of renewable energies in Scotland and the investment opportunities that would come with having 25% of the entire EU’s wind energy potential and 10% of the entire EU’s tidal energy potential.

– A flourishing export industry driven by Scottish enterprises.

– Premier research and development facilities producing high levels of innovation.

– World class institutions of higher learning attracting some of the brightest minds from across the globe (Scotland has more universities in the world’s top 200 per head of population than any other nation on earth).

– A prosperous food and drink sector (Scotland is the world’s 3rd largest Salmon producer and exports 40 bottles of Whisky per second).

– A growing creative industries sector.

– The trade from tourism.

Reaching a Conclusion

Consider all of the above possibilities and many more and then ask yourself: does anybody seriously think that a Scottish Parliament with all those powers and possibilities would be incapable of doing a better job than those currently in Westminster when it comes to the most vulnerable people in society?

I’ll say it once more just to be sure: At present, pensions in Britain are amongst the worst in Europe. Support for the disabled is truly abysmal. The government and the opposition at Westminster are explicit in their intentions to keep both of these things that way.

The question therefore boils down to this: Do we choose, as a democratic society, to spend more of our collective time and resources on caring for the most vulnerable people in society, or should our priorities lie elsewhere?

The answer to that question after independence, of course, will rest with the electorate who will elect political parties to represent them based on their respective manifestos. Some might pledge greater support for vulnerable people in society, others might not. Some might propose an increase in taxation to fund pensions, others might not. Some might offer an enhanced winter fuel allowance for the elderly, others might not. Ultimately, the choice will lie solely with the people of Scotland and these issues will be openly contested across Scottish society.

The answer to the above question after a No vote, however, has already been given. There is no alternative. The Conservatives have committed to Billions of pounds more of cuts. The Labour Party has promised to match their cap on welfare and in some instances be “tougher on welfare than the Tories.”

Be in no doubt, then, that there will be a continuation of policies that have left disabled people and pensioners languishing at the bottom of the European league tables even if Labour wins next year.

Extra help for pensioners and the disabled will not be on offer at the 2015 general election.

Of course independence might not work, and of course there will be many great obstacles to overcome when trying to go it alone. I am under no illusions that voting for independence carries risks.

But it would be beyond foolish to believe that staying in the Union doesn’t also carry risks.

When our elected representatives have not only put us bottom of the league in Europe, but have also signaled their intention to cut support even further, how many people really think staying in the UK is likely to improve matters for pensioners and the disabled?

I would submit that it will not.

Independence gives the people of Scotland a chance to do things differently. Not because we want people to live a life of luxury from day one, but because we cannot tolerate some of the most vulnerable people in society being the WORST off in Europe any longer.

There may well be great problems faced when trying.

But the far greater tragedy will lie in not trying at all.

Why Yes is the Right Thing To Do.

4 Sep

“There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing. The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do. But then, of course, comes the difficulty of making sure that it is right.” F.M Cornford, Microcosmographia Academia, 1908.

Although written over 100 years ago, this observation about the motivation that lies behind a particular course of action is of ever increasing relevance to the debate on Scottish independence as the campaign enters its final 100 days.

At present, large sections of the British population are living in truly appalling circumstances. By any measure, things are not just bad in Britain today; they are a disgrace to a civilized country.

The following facts – and it is important to remember that these are facts – serve as an adequate illustration:

“The richest people in Britain have had an astonishing year.”

  • The 5 richest UK households have more money than the poorest 12.6 million people in Britain. (Oxfam UK)
  • Britain has 3 times the amount of millionaires working in finance than the rest of Europe combined. (European Banking Authority)
  • Tax fraud costs the UK treasury 70 Billion pounds per year. The entire NHS budget is just less than 110 Billion pounds per year.
  • In the past year, Britain’s richest 1000 people saw their wealth collectively increase by 15.4%, meaning that they now own 519 Billion Pounds. This prompted Philip Beresford, who compiled the rankings, to say “I’ve never seen such a phenomenal rise in personal wealth as the growth in the fortunes of Britain’s 1,000 richest people over the past year. The richest people in Britain have had an astonishing year.”

“Last year charities handed out over 20 million meals to people living in Britain.”

  •  As a consequence of government cuts to welfare, 3 million children will be living in poverty in Britain by 2015. (Children’s Commissioner for England)
  • Britain’s death rate for children under 5 is 4.9 out of every 1,000 children born. This means that Britain is second only to Malta in the number of child deaths in Western Europe. The figure for Britain is 50 percent higher than in Iceland. Experts believe this staggering rate of child mortality is a direct consequence of the growing intensity of poverty. (The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), published in the Lancet Medical Journal.)
  • For the first time ever, the majority of people in poverty in the UK are working. 1 in every 5 workers in Britain is paid less than they need to maintain a basic, but socially acceptable standard of living. Working families increasingly have to turn to food banks and credit to make ends meet. (The Living Wage Commission.)
  • Brittish workers work the 3rd longest hours in Europe and receive the 2nd lowest levels of pay. (Office for National Statistics and the OECD.)
  • Last year charities handed out over 20 million meals to people living in Britain who were unable to scrape together the means to feed themselves. (Oxfam UK)

Evidently, then, there is absolutely no way that a campaign entitled Better Together can possibly base its argument on the belief that life in Britain is wonderful and we should all be glad that we are a part of it. Endorsing the current state of Britain is quite clearly not the right thing to do.

What people might buy, though, is that an independent Scotland would be even worse.

And this is exactly what they have set out to do.

Whether its pointing out the uncertainty over currency, highlighting that businesses might pull out of an independent Scotland, warning about a possible downturn in investment, questioning the viability of pensions or stating that an independent Scotland would need to increase taxes, every attempt has been made by those seeking a No vote to shift scrutiny away from the state that Britain is in TODAY and focus it onto what a prospective Scotland might look like TOMORROW.

At no point has there been a serious discussion about how Britain intends to tackle the scourge of rampant inequality and decimating poverty if Scotland votes No this September. Briefly put, there hasn’t even been a half-arsed attempt at setting out why staying in the UK will make life better for Britain as a whole.

The consequence, as many have pointed out, is that the Scottish people have been told we are Better Together by people who cannot agree on what we are Better Together for.

Remember, the Scottish people voted overwhelmingly in 2011 to elect an SNP government that had promised to offer a referendum if they won. This means that the Scottish people have democratically expressed their desire to be asked about the future governance of their country. What this does not mean, though, contrary to the near unanimous consensus in the mainstream media, is that the Yes side alone must bear the burden of proof here.

In my opinion, representatives and supporters of the British state have just as much work to do in convincing Scots that they should stay as those who are seeking to garner support for leaving. As I’ve said before, if the status quo in Britain was acceptable, or perhaps even just a tad unbearable, this referendum would not be taking place. Those statistics about child poverty happened on Britain’s watch. Those urging us to stay within that system should at least explain how they intend to fix it.

You see, the truth is, nobody can answer the questions surrounding independence definitively and there is no way of knowing FOR SURE whether life would get worse for the poorest people in society in an independent Scotland. One can only weigh up the arguments and hope to reach a well informed conclusion.

The one certainty that we DO HAVE, though, is that a No vote in September means continuing down a path in which the abovementioned statistics will continue to apply.

It’s either Labour or its Tory after a No. It’s either another 12 billion pounds worth of cuts already announced by Osborne, or a similar level of cuts by Balls. Either way, Government policy will be conducted in adherence with the Tory welfare spending cap, even if, as Labour have already announced, Labour win. (By the way, that spending cap is likely to push an extra 345,000 more children into poverty. (Save the Children))

Billions of pounds will continue to be spent keeping nuclear weapons close to the city of Glasgow where around 35% of children live in poverty. Brits will still work some of the longest hours in Europe and be paid some of the lowest wages. Immigrants will continue to be blamed for the economic misery of some of the poorest people in society. All parties will promise to clamp down on immigration. Energy bills will continue to rise as essential public services continue to be run for private profit and not public need. Bankers bonuses will continue to increase as benefits continue to be cut, thus further entrenching the belief that the rich will not work unless they are paid and the poor should not be paid unless they work (or, perhaps more accurately in contemporary Britain, the poor should not be paid even if they work.) The budget for the Scottish Parliament will still be decided at Westminster where it will be subject to cuts just like everything else. Britain will remain one of only two countries in the world that has unelected religious clerics sitting in its legislature, the other being Iran. Prince Charles will become the head of the state, the head of the official church and the head of the armed forces all by virtue of simply having had the good fortune of being born. He will continue to talk to plants and trees, continue to influence government policy in private and continue to make ludicrous foreign policy statements in public. Britain’s place in the EU will become increasingly vulnerable. Britain’s commitment to renewable energies will remain woefully inadequate. Investment in Research and Development will continue its downward trajectory. Arms deals will continue to be made with third world dictators. 

Make no mistake, the idea that there might be a different way of doing things is not up for discussion in Britain after a No vote.

In Britain, we have not only tried a low wage, low tax, unbalanced and debt laden economic model, we are gearing up for much more of the same in the future – regardless of who wins the next general election. We are the champions of failed ideas.

In stark contrast, an independent Scotland, by its very nature, offers the possibility to do things differently. In an independent Scotland, anything is possible.

The diversity of ideas and policies – many of them economically viable and thoroughly researched – from a wide variety of Yes supporting groups that have nothing to do with the SNP or Alex Salmond is truly incredible. If nothing else, they have shown beyond all reasonable doubt that another way of doing things in Scotland is possible. (As a starter here I would highly recommend this talk from Robin McAlpine at the event “Imagine a Better Scotland”. If you like it, check out their website and request your free E-Book where a full menu for the transformation of Scotland is set out in a format that is very easy to read. I would also encourage anyone to watch this speech by Tommy Sheridan before the 18th September. It has over 130,000 views on YouTube and is, to the best of my knowledge, the most widely watched political video on Scottish Independence.)

Of course it might not work. And it could well fail. But for once we would be accountable for our failures.

No more blaming of Tory governments in London for the ills of the Scottish people. No more protesting at the injustice of having to send Scottish soldiers off to fight in illegal foreign wars. No more accusing Westminster of squandering Scotland’s oil wealth to such an extent that hundreds of thousands of pensioners live in fuel poverty. No more criticizing the imposition by Westminster of a welfare cap or a bedroom tax against the wishes of the Scottish people. No more lamenting the decision to privatise Royal Mail without public support.

After independence, the above decisions and many more like them will be taken only if the people of Scotland agree to them. There will be no more claiming that if we only had the power we could make things better.

“There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing. The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do.”

The opportunity for the people of Scotland to seek an alternative to rampant inequality and destructive poverty, and to be accountable for their own decisions in the process, is the argument for doing something. It is the argument for voting Yes.

Voting Yes is the right thing to do.

The “Accidental Ignition” of a UK Wide Debate on Nuclear Weapons

19 Aug

As I sit writing this nuclear warheads capable of bringing about the death of millions of innocent civilians are stored in Scotland as part of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system.

This concentration of illegal weapons of mass destruction was installed in Scotland without the express consent of the Scottish people.

As part of the independence referendum campaign, the SNP, along with other political parties and many grassroots organisations, have made it perfectly clear that a Yes vote will lead to the removal of Trident nuclear weaponry from Scottish territory.

It is therefore not too much of a stretch to conclude that, given the political consensus amongst those in the Yes campaign, a vote for independence is also an express declaration by the Scottish electorate that they do not want to have weapons of mass destruction in Scotland.

In light of this possible outcome, many in the rest of the UK have been pondering the question of what exactly to do with all these weapons should they be banished from Scottish waters.

One possibility that has been suggested is that the rest of the UK government and the Scottish government could enter into an agreement to continue to base the weapons in Scotland following a Yes vote.

There would appear to be some merit to this suggestion. After all, the costs and risks associated with moving such a vast stockpile of highly destructive weaponry would be enormous and would take years of planning to put into practice.

The first problem with this approach, though, is that the Scottish government of the day would in all likelihood be morally bound to consult the electorate on such a deal, if it was ever proposed, before being able to allow the continuation of Trident in Scotland.

The second, and far more immediate problem, however, is that negotiations to establish such an agreement would take place within the framework of the wider negotiations about independence and thus put the Scottish government in an incredibly strong position vis-à-vis the remaining UK government.

Perhaps in slightly simplistic terms, this argument could be phrased along the following lines: “If you don’t agree to a currency union then you will not only have to find somewhere else to put your nuclear weapons, but you will also have to pick up the bill for doing so. Oh and by the way, the U.S isn’t going to be too chuffed about their main ally not having a nuclear deterrent so you better hurry up.”

The point here is not the specific bargaining chips (e.g. currency or lower debt repayments for weapons) but the wider point that significant implications are likely to flow from Scotland having such a strong bargaining position in the negotiations following independence.

With such a deal appearing not to be in the best interests of the remaining UK following independence, then, many have now started to look at the possibility of housing the UK’s nuclear weapons somewhere else in England.

Remember: the UK government has absolutely no policy on what to do with nuclear weapons in the event of a Yes vote – something that once again surely strengthens the hand of a Scottish government during negotiations. The UK government has explicitly stated on numerous occasions that they are not making contingency plans of any kind for independence and this includes making a backup plan for their nuclear arsenal. (I know, I know, I can hear you all taking your queue from the thousands of column inches that have been written on this point and screaming “But what about Plan B? Where is the Plan B? Surely you must have a Plan B? We demand a Plan B!”)

Given this self-confessed complete lack of advance planning by the UK government, one must rely on the work done on this matter from reputable think tanks and various other academic outlets (which the UK government never reads and certainly doesn’t think about because, please don’t forget, they are not making plans for a Yes vote.)

One such report, found in last week’s Guardian, is of particular interest. Compiled by The Royal United Services Institute, the report states that the option “given most credence to date” for storing the nuclear warheads is the Fal estuary to the north of Falmouth which offers “good shelter and a comparatively isolated location”

The study then goes on to acknowledge that there would however be safety concerns: “Introducing nuclear-armed [submarines] to Devonport will unavoidably introduce a new risk that an accidental ignition of one or all of a submarine’s Trident D5 missiles could spread radioactive material over some of Plymouth’s 260,000 inhabitants.”

Currently the nuclear weapons are based near Glasgow where the surrounding population is well over 1 million people. Nuclear warheads have therefore been transported along the M74 motorway to Glasgow before. Presumably the same accidental ignition risk exists whenever they are moved? And even if it doesn’t, shouldn’t the people of Scotland at least know a bit more about what this accidental ignition risk involves?

But don’t worry about complaining or protesting about this state of affairs whether you live in Glasgow or in Plymouth. The report makes it perfectly clear that it would make absolutely no difference: “Any local opposition might delay but not stop relocation.”

In another section of the report that looks at the wider context of the proposal to move the weapons to the South of England, the Royal United Services Institute observes that: “”The various challenges of relocation would probably trigger a wider national discussion in the [rest of the UK] on whether or not the strategic benefits of retaining nuclear weapons exceeded the costs involved.”

So there you have it. A vote for independence would not only be a vote expressing the democratic will of the Scottish people to remove nuclear weapons from their country, it would also trigger a wider discussion throughout the UK on whether or not retaining the weapons would be beneficial at all.

On the other hand, a No vote in September means… nothing at all. The weapons stay near Glasgow without the democratic consent of the Scottish people and the wider debate across the UK about the continuation of Trident is never held.

Instead, 80 Billion pounds of British taxpayers’ money will be spent on servicing these abominable weapons during an era of austerity at a base near the city of Glasgow where 33% of children live in poverty.

Independence and Democracy

4 Aug

Thanks for the Support

In my last post I came out in favour of independence (see here) and received a truly overwhelming number of messages from people who had taken the time to read my thoughts. Thank you all very much.

Rather surprisingly, my post led to a number of people contacting me to ask a variety of questions. From the No side in particular, many told me that they could sympathise with my views but remained unconvinced that in an independent Scotland would thrive as an independent state. “But how would it work?” and “how would we afford it?” were without doubt the most common of all the questions that I received last month.

Although I did try to answer some of these queries at the time, I decided that it would be far better (time permitting) to develop my ideas on the future of an independent Scotland via a series of blog posts.

So here we go.

The first of my new posts can be found below and is aimed at the “how would it work” line of questioning. It concerns the dire state of democratic representation and participation in Scotland. It is therefore firmly aimed at those who believe this debate should be conducted beyond the confines of a spreadsheet.

For those seeking in depth economic analysis and reassurances about finances, I am sorry to disappoint you this time round – perhaps this post isn’t for you.
That being said, for those of you who are looking for an economic analysis of the status quo in Britain today, please take the time to watch the first 5 minutes of this video. (Click Here)

If you would like to listen to some of the ideas circulating throughout the Yes campaign on how Scotland’s economy could flourish after independence, please watch the video to the end. It is 19 minutes in total. I would recommend anyone who finds themselves saying “I can’t vote Yes because I don’t know enough about it” to watch it and many others like it from the Common Weal Project. I intend to use future blog posts to build upon some of their ideas.

Independence and Democracy

Throughout the referendum campaign it has become clear that there is only one side making a compelling argument from the perspective of democracy. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that those in favour of Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom have all but conceded the democratic argument to those in favour of independence.

I have never heard it being seriously argued that a vote for independence would render Scotland a less democratic country.

On the contrary, all of the most compelling arguments flow in the other direction and would include: the guarantee that Scotland will always get the government it votes for; the assurance that decisions impacting upon the lives of Scottish citizens will be taken by a parliament directly elected by the Scottish people; an electoral system based on a type of proportional representation; a chance for smaller parties – and even for parties not yet in existence – to flourish and contribute to the national discourse; the opportunity to draft a constitution fitting for the 21st century and the abolition of the absurd practice of allowing an unelected House of Lords that consists of hereditary peers, religious clerics and various other obscure characters to influence government legislation. (On that last point consider this: there are only 2 nation states on earth that have unelected religious clerics sitting in their legislature – Britain… and Iran.)

As a bare minimum, democracy must contain an element of dignity. The right to not only elect candidates who you believe will best represent you and your fellow citizens; but also the right to hold those representatives to account through participating in the robust political life of the community should be a profoundly empowering experience.

In Scotland, though, we are so far behind other European nation states when it comes to democratic representation and active participation that it is quite frankly embarrassing.

I have drawn upon these statistics in a previous post. I make no apologies for doing so again here.

Scotland currently has 32 local councils. The UK as a whole has 406.

This means that at a sub – national government level both Scotland and the UK are lagging far behind continental Europe when it comes to democratic representation.

1.) Number of sub-national governments

– Austria: 2,357
– Denmark: 98
– Finland: 336
– France: 36,697
– Germany: 11,553
– Italy: 8,094
– Spain: 8,116
– UK: 406
– Scotland: 32

With such a small number of local councils comes the obvious problem of population size per local authority. Once again we are miles behind what one might consider to be the norm when taking a look at other European countries. The sheer size of local authorities in Scotland and the UK as a whole render local decision making all but impossible.

The average population size per UK council is 152, 680. In Scotland, its 163,200

2.) Average population size per council

– Austria : 3,560
– Denmark: 56, 590
– Finland: 15, 960
– France: 1,770
– Germany: 7,080
– Italy: 7,470
– Spain: 5, 680
– UK: 152, 680
– Scotland: 163,200

It should therefore come as no surprise to discover that turn out at local elections in the UK – and in Scotland in particular where we have a local council that is geographically larger than Belgium! – is so low.

3.) Turnout at local elections

– Austria: 73%
– Denmark: 69%
– Finland: 61%
– France: 64%
– Germany: 60%
– Italy: 75%
– Spain: 73%
– UK : 36%
– Scotland: 32%

The fundamental problem therefore is that decisions which influence everyday life in our local communities are taken far too far away from the people they are intended to apply to.

As Lesley Riddoch points out in her excellent book Blossom – What Scotland Needs To Flourish : “In Norway, Finland, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland and Belgium, towns like St. Andrews, Saltcoats, Kirkcaldy, Fort William, Kelso, Pitlochry or Methil and islands like Barra, North Uist, Westray and Uist have their own councils.”

But not in Scotland, the least locally empowered country in the developed world. Take Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany, for example. It has twice the population of Scotland and a total of nearly 24,000 elected representatives. Scotland as a whole has a grand total of 1,416.

According to the latest Scottish Household Survey, only 22% of Scots think that they can have any impact on the way their local area functions.

With such low levels of confidence in the capacity for citizens to actively contribute to their local communities, then, is it any wonder that turnouts are so low at election time?

One of the major – but by no means the only – problems here is a piece of Westminster legislation that was passed during John Major’s time as Prime Minister. The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 created the current local government structure of 32 unitary authorities covering the whole of Scotland.

As a result, it is only by virtue of different Westminster legislation or independence that any substantial change could be achieved. (Unless of course you are quite content with the status quo in which people voting to put a plaque up on a wall in Biggar have to send their council representative 40 miles down the road to South Lanarkshire Council to ask for permission.)

Remember: it isn’t normal to be this rubbish.

In addition to the absurd size of Councils in Scotland and the UK, another considerable problem here is that of money. Once again, by any measure of comparison, the UK and Scotland are far, far behind the norm when it comes to the revenue raising and spending powers of local authorities.

In the UK, local authorities raise 25% of their budget. In France the figure is 50% and in Switzerland it is 85%, with the wholly unsurprising consequence that turnout at local elections are much higher in those countries.

Moving beyond this then – because we cannot hope to be only average can we? – in Norway they have a similar population to Scotland but have 431 municipalities compared to Scotland’s 32. These municipalities directly run primary and secondary education, outpatient health, senior citizen and social services, unemployment, planning, economic development and the roads.

Remember: it doesn’t have to be like this.

You don’t even have to look at the Norwegian model. In Porto Allegre in Brazil, for example, there has been a hugely successful programme of participatory budgeting. Since the late 1980s, spending decisions in the city have been made by neighbourhood assemblies. Thousands of citizens from across the social spectrum with vast differences in income, lifestyle and family background take part in 24 annual assemblies where residents debate and vote for funding priorities. They also elect representatives who meet weekly to carry out the wishes of the community. They can decide, amongst many other things, whether to prioritise spending on fixing roads, building bridges or setting up a new day care centre for children.

Citizens are thus empowered at the local level to take decisions that directly impact their everyday lives and administer their democratically allocated resources at a local level. The result, as James Foley and Pete Ramand point out in their thought provoking book Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence, has been drastic increases in popular participation, reduced corruption and inequality, and political education for the lowest socio-economic communities. Similar experiments are now underway around the globe in places like Venezuela, Ecuador and India.

Sweden offers another striking example here. In Sweden only those earning over roughly £30,000 per year pay any taxes to central government. Instead, income tax is largely paid to local authorities a fraction the size of those in Scotland who run virtually all of the services within that area that are used by citizens. Only corporation tax and higher rates of income tax are paid to central government. There is therefore a clear link between tax paid by local citizens and the decisions taken by local citizens about which services that tax revenue should be spent on. The result is far higher levels of citizen engagement and participation at the local level.

As these examples have demonstrated, there are so many different ways in which Scotland could transform itself into a far more democratic system. Look at almost any other country in the developed world and you will see far greater levels of engagement in both local and national level politics. But in the UK everyone seems to just accept such abysmally low levels of representation and participation as something that is normal or, far more depressing in my view, unalterable.

The question before the Scottish people then is a simple one: do you want to live in a country where decisions that have a direct impact upon local communities are taken by people living and working in those communities?

If you do, then evidently the first step is to ensure that there is a Scottish Parliament in place with full powers to devolve decision making down to the local level. Otherwise, we are stuck in a Westminster system with absolutely no appetite for decentralised decision making and which consists of only 59 Scottish MPs out of a total of 650.

Of course change will take time, and many problems will be encountered along the way, but surely this is a small price to pay when compared to the absurd status quo of not even trying.

And this goes to a fundamental point in the referendum debate as a whole: In my view, it simply isn’t enough to say that you would vote for independence if there was a comprehensive blueprint for the radical transformation of local democracy in Scotland on offer from an existing political party (realistically the SNP) but since that isn’t on offer right away you will be voting No.

We shouldn’t be looking to the future based on the constrictive and highly undesirable democratic apparatus of the past. Look at those figures again – by any measure the situation in both Scotland and Britain today is fundamentally flawed and there is virtually no prospect of changing things via the Westminster route.

We live in one of the most centralised states in the entire world in which the political establishment are more than happy to have an obedient and largely disempowered population adhere to their “stand still while we try and fix you” style of governance.

We could be doing a lot, lot better.

Independence, for all its uncertainties, would definitely bring about a proliferation of new political parties, new interest groups and new lobbying initiatives as the people of Scotland set about the task of building and shaping their own nation state.

Furthermore, based on all that I have seen, read, heard, debated and discussed with many different sections of the grassroots Yes campaign I am in no doubt that there would be a groundswell of opinion in favour of major democratic reform moving forward after a Yes vote. Ideas about enhancing local and national democracy are widespread and gaining considerable levels of support throughout the country as town halls continue to be packed out every evening of the week.

And this is a crucial point: across the length and breadth of Scotland people have already demonstrated their appetite for local democracy. Every night town halls and community centres are filled to capacity with local citizens coming to listen and discuss the future of their country. This is an achievement of the very highest order and, in my view at least, absolutely refutes the assertion made by Johann Lamont, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, that Scottish people are “not genetically programmed to make political decisions.”

The return of the town hall meeting has shown that the people of Scotland are ready to participate in the political life of their communities. Just imagine what could be achieved if they were only to acquire the power to match that enthusiasm.

Rather than standing still while we wait on Westminster to fix us, we could, through a radically new democratic settlement, begin to think about fixing ourselves.

A partial defence of Alex Salmond (or a right good go at Alastair Darling.)

5 Jun

Before doing this I must make two things absolutely clear

1.)    I am not, and have never been, a supporter of the SNP

2.)    When I hear people say that they are voting Yes or No in September just because they like or dislike Alex Salmond I want to scream. People who are prepared to base the most important decision of their lives on the personality of one individual should be openly ridiculed and embarrassed at every opportunity.

Ok, here we go

In Scotland we have had our own parliament since 1999 and this has allowed Scottish politicians, elected in Scotland, to administer certain areas of everyday Scottish life like health and education. In setting up the Scottish Parliament, however, the rules governing who could be elected were set in such a way that no one party could win a majority at Holyrood.

Where Westminster’s first past the post system was designed to produce one party rule (Conservative or Labour), the Scottish system was intended from the outset to produce coalitions or, at most, minority governments.

The main reason for this, according to some, was to stop the rise of the SNP and its calls for full independence. Indeed, former Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell has openly said that the electoral rules for the Scottish Parliament were implemented to prevent a Scottish National Party government achieving a parliamentary majority.

There was therefore a widespread feeling that by giving Scotland its own parliament, the people of Scotland would be content to have “the best of both worlds” by running some things from Holyrood and others from Westminster and the calls for independence would soon die down. As George Robertson put it before the Scottish Parliament was set up, “Devolution will kill nationalism stone dead.”

For the first few elections to the Holyrood Parliament this tactic seemed to have worked, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats governing by coalition in 1999 and 2003. By 2007, however, the SNP had made considerable gains and decided to govern as a minority government after becoming the largest party in the Scottish Parliament by one seat.

This was still deemed “acceptable” by many in Westminster since the SNP had only managed to form a minority government and thus would not only have to rely on support from other parties to pass legislation, but also, much more importantly, did not have the democratic mandate to call for a referendum on independence.

All this changed dramatically in 2011. Despite the electoral system being designed specifically to stop the SNP forming a majority government, they won the Scottish Parliamentary elections in emphatic fashion by taking 69 out of a possible 129 seats.

The immediate consequence of this victory was something that many in Westminster had actively sought to make impossible – there would be a referendum on Scottish Independence. After campaigning explicitly on the promise to hold a referendum if they were elected, the SNP won an outright majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. This meant that the Scottish public had democratically voted, by a majority of votes, for the holding of a referendum.

In stark contrast to the Holyrood elections in which the SNP broke the system to win a majority, the 2010 Westminster general elections that were designed to produce a majority failed to do so. For only the second time since 1929, no one party had been able to win an outright majority of votes. The result has been that since 2010, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have governed by coalition.

This then brings me to my point: Alex Salmond is the only leader of a political party in the UK who has been able to win a majority at a parliamentary election (Labour won a majority in the Welsh Assembly). David Cameron’s Conservative Party failed to win a majority in an electoral system designed to produce them and now requires Liberal Democrat support in a coalition government. Alex Salmond’s SNP won an outright majority in an electoral system designed to produce coalitions.

Keep this fact in mind at all times: Salmond is the leader of a party that won an outright majority in a democratic election.

It is therefore simply baffling that so many UK politicians and commentators continually refer to him as a dictator (Hitler, Mussolini, Milosevic and Stalin have all been used. See here for a wonderful insight into the world of ALEX SALMOND DICTATOR COMPARISON BINGO.)

The latest in this long line of dictator comparisons came the other day from Alastair Darling, the leader of the Better Together campaign, who said that Salmond was acting like Kim Jong Il, the crazed – and dead – dictator of one of the world’s most secretive and suppressed societies. What’s more, when the New Statesman in the same interview asked whether he considered the SNP to be peddling a brand of “blood and soil nationalism” (a term associated with the Nazis), he replied “At heart . . . [inaudible mumble]”

Now, if this inaudible mumble actually meant yes, and there is every reason to believe that it might since he had already said that the SNP movement was not “civic nationalism”, the comparison has now shifted from Salmond and dictators to SNP supporters en masse and the Nazis. Charming stuff.

As far as I know nobody in the Labour party has compared David Cameron to Hitler or suggested that the Prime Minister is behaving like the deranged leader of a secretive communist state. Can you imagine the media storm if somebody did? How many old school Tory Toffs do you think would sit still if Miliband compared Cameron to Kim Jong Il?

But when it comes to the democratically elected leader of Scotland it seems like everyone who can hold a pen is queuing up to take a pop.

Of all the things that this sort of approach might be, it surely can’t be good campaigning tactics. How many Scots do you know will respond well to being told that their elected leader is comparable to a dictator and that supporters of the biggest political party in Scotland are like Nazis? Not too many, I’d imagine.

The other point to bear in mind here, aside from the dictator nonsense, is simply this: how pish must the other political parties in Scotland be if they could not collectively stop the SNP from winning a majority in an electoral system that was designed to prevent majorities?

We are having this referendum not because the SNP are some wonderful solution to all of Scotland’s problems. We are having it because support for the other political parties in Scotland all but collapsed. If they had got their act together, none of this would be happening today.

Now that the referendum is upon us, it is these same parties who failed so miserably to stop the rise of the SNP, despite having an electoral system designed in their favour,  who are now teaming up to campaign for a no vote.

In doing so, their campaign leader has deemed the most appropriate way to tackle the SNP this time round is to bypass all common decency and jump straight into implying that SNP supporters have something in common with Nazis.

And, on a final note, remember that all 3 of the main Westminster parties and the Better Together movement as a whole have said that they favour giving the Scottish Parliament more powers if Scotland votes no in September.

The consequence here, then, is that Darling and co. are openly advocating the transferring of more powers to a parliament that they believe is run by a dictator like head of state who commands an army of blood and soil nationalists.

Surely there is something wrong with that policy somewhere along the line?

The above is not intended to be an endorsement of a Yes vote in the referendum campaign or a plea for people to leave poor old Alex Salmond alone. It is an attempt to highlight the worrying depths to which people who should know better are willing to sink to make a cheap political point.

When political debate at a nationwide level amongst senior politicians and commentators (I exclude the online community which is an entirely different matter here) is reduced to comparing democratically elected leaders and their supporters to some of the vilest organisations in human history something has gone far wrong.

Going into this referendum campaign there was a unanimous consensus that matters should be conducted on the basis of what was best for the people of Scotland moving forward.

In my mind, and I could be wrong, consistently comparing Scotland’s democratically elected leader to a variety of fanatical despots probably isn’t something that is likely to be conducive to the public good in Scotland.

The Tragedy of Tiny Turnouts: Panicking for all the Wrong Reasons

26 May

Over the past week the UK has seen local council elections and a European Parliamentary election take place in which the turnout was 36% and 33.8% respectively.

In response, the mainstream media has all but abandoned any sense of perspective by relentlessly portraying the success of UKIP as something of a defining moment in the history of British democracy.

With an almost unanimous consensus, news outlets from across the political spectrum have praised Farage’s party at every possible opportunity for seemingly rocking the political foundations of the country with its latest successes at the ballot box.

“Farage has won, everybody in Westminster panic!” seems to be the order of the day.

But why is such a modest victory or second place finish in a set of elections with embarrassingly low turnouts sending the British political establishment and its subservient media into such a frenzy?

Surely the far less widely discussed, but far more shocking, result for any democratic state following such elections is that two thirds of the British public decided not to vote at all?

To state the blatantly obvious, the results from last week’s local elections mean that the total number of votes cast for the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP, Greens and various other smaller parties and independents COMBINED equaled just over one third of the public vote.

Furthermore, and I think this really puts things into perspective, 91% of eligible UK voters did not vote for UKIP in the European elections and 93% of eligible voters did not vote for UKIP in the local elections.

And yet, in the world of contemporary British politics this has come to be universally portrayed as an earthquake, a landslide, a rout…

Rather than turn the nation’s attention to the problems that underlie such chronically low turnouts and kick start an informed debate about voter engagement and improving the democratic process, the mainstream media has opted to brush all that boring stuff aside and replace it with the entirely erroneous belief that the rise in support for UKIP represents a protest vote.

Surely the protest came from those who stayed at home?

Equally problematic has been the response of politicians from the main Westminster parties who have all rambled on at mind-numbing length about how they intend to counter the UKIP “threat.” Whether it’s some Tory MP saying that they get the message and will get tougher on immigration; or the Labour leader saying that his party will respond to the call for change, those in the Westminster bubble seem committed to wooing the 1/3 of voters who turned out at the local elections, rather than think about how to include and engage with the 2/3 who didn’t vote at all.

This comprehensive failure of representative democracy, which has resulted in the one man band that is UKIP setting the political agenda despite obtaining nowhere near 10% of the eligible public vote, is the state we now find ourselves in.

Accordingly, the accusation that Westminster is out of touch with the average man or woman on the street has never been truer.

It is true not because the average voter believes we need more scapegoating of immigrants, slashing of welfare, charging for use of the NHS, opposition to gay marriage, quarantining of HIV positive citizens, stopping international aid to places like bongo bongo land, introducing a flat rate of tax, abolishing maternity pay, shooting “poofters”, sending Lenny Henry back to live in a “Black country”, stopping women from wearing trousers lest men lost interest in them, preaching that Nigerians are bad people, baiting of Muslims or allowing husbands to rape their wives;  but because the average voter simply isn’t voting and there appears to be no interest in enticing them to do so.

And so my question is simply this: Is pandering to this band of UKIP balloons really going to get disaffected voters more engaged in politics and return to the ballot box? Will witnessing otherwise competent politicians wilfully enter into some sort of bizarre “Farage-off” competition whilst being cheered on by the Daily Mail really help matters here?

Well, maybe, but only because they will have become so horrified at the level of intolerance on display from our elected representatives that they will feel compelled to vote and send them packing.

But surely that can’t be something that those of a reasonable outlook on life can be hoping for? It would be a complete abrogation of responsibility to just sit tight and hope that Farage bullies Cameron or Miliband into becoming so reactionary that enough non-voters come back to the ballot box and restore some common decency by kicking them out.

The only solution here, as I see it, with regards to local elections (the woeful turn out at European level will have to wait for another post), lies not in nationwide campaigns of who can best imitate Nigel Farage; but in breaking down the over centralized UK state system by empowering local councils, and thus communities, to a far greater extent.

As Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (an unlikely source I’ll admit) has argued “Give councils more power and you will attract a higher caliber of candidate as well as boosting participation at local elections. In Britain, local authorities raise 25% of their budgets and turnout is typically around 30%. In France those figures are, respectively, 50 and 55 percent; in Switzerland 85 and 90 percent.”

Keywords here: more power, higher caliber of candidate, boosting participation. Sounds good eh?

Looking to Norway things are even more striking. There they have turnouts of around 70% in local elections that comprise 431 municipalities (Scotland has roughly the same population and only 32 municipalities by the way) which run primary and secondary education, outpatient health, senior citizen services, unemployment services, planning, economic development and road infrastructure, and you will not find a single person in the world who believes that their democracy is in a poor state.

In addition to revenue raising powers, the size of councils themselves should be drastically reduced. At present the average population size per UK council is 152, 680 people and can in no way be described as local.

In contrast, the average population size per council in some of our European neighbours is as follows:

Austria : 3,560

Denmark: 56, 590

Finland: 15, 960

France: 1,770

Germany: 7,080

Italy: 7,470

Spain: 5, 680

UK: 152, 680

If you find these results staggering, the statistics with regards to local election turnout are even more mind blowing

Austria: 73%

Denmark: 69%

Finland: 61%

France: 64%

Germany: 60%

Italy: 75%

Spain: 73%

UK last week: 36%

It seems easy then doesn’t it: More power to smaller local units of governance = considerably higher voter turnout.

It might not be a cast iron guarantee of success, but I would say that given the statistics in other countries it would have a pretty good chance of improving matters. I also don’t think that it would be a particularly controversial proposal, perhaps even a vote winner, if put to the dedicated every time voter AND the 2/3 of Brits who didn’t show up at the last local elections.

A high voter turnout would also, I am convinced, severely dilute the impact of UKIP and perhaps redress a media balance that is so far tipped in their favour at present that you would think BBC question time had been rebranded “Farage Hour” and Sky News replaced with “UKIP Spokesperson on Demand.”

And even if UKIP continued to perform well after the UK establishment had injected a large dose of democracy into the status quo by empowering local communities and enhancing voter turnout then it would still be worth doing for its own sake. At least we could then say that they were capable of obtaining something like an acceptable level of democratic support from the public as a whole for their political agenda.

The above may seem radical, and to an electorate so paralysed by top down, centralised government it should come as no surprise when proposals of this nature are labelled as such.

But the important thing to remember here is that enhancing local democracy would do nothing more than make Britain normal when compared our European neighbours.

The wish to be more like other European countries when it comes to democratic representation is not radical, regardless of what the Eurosceptic lobby may have us believe. Wishing to remain this below par for no good reason, on the other hand, certainly is.

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