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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 http://www.allofusfirst.org 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.

Rethinking the European Question

15 May

Can there really be a valid case for Scotland not being in the European Union if it votes for independence?

Surely not. Surely the months of argument between both sides in the referendum debate over whether or not an independent Scotland would continue to be a member of the EU is evidence enough that the desirability of membership itself is beyond contestation?

Well, I wouldn’t be too sure about it.

Firstly, and this may seem like a blatantly obvious point to make, the whole point of voting for independence and the possibility to govern affairs differently in Scotland is exactly that – a vote to do things differently.

From a democratic perspective, EU membership necessarily entails the implementation of vast amounts of European legislation in areas ranging from environmental standards to consumer protection. As a result, a substantial proportion of the legislative capacity within a newly independent Scotland would be transferred to the European level and would be done, according to the SNP at least, without giving the Scottish people a say on the matter.

Independence would therefore be a vote in 2014 for absolute power in the Scottish Parliament only to then give a considerable proportion of that power away to Brussels. A swapping of being ruled by Westminster for being ruled like Westminster (in some respects at least.)  

The point here is not to irresponsibly brush to one side concerns about Scottish industry and jobs and the impact that not being in the EU could have in this respect. Instead, it is simply to call into question whether the Scottish people themselves deserve a say in how their newly independent state should be governed – particularly in light of the well documented democratic deficit in the EU legislative process.

This discussion becomes all the more pressing when one considers that an independent Scotland’s EU membership could come with terms and conditions that many Scots may not be too keen on. (See my previous blog post on Scotland and the EU) If, and it remains an if, Scotland had to adopt the Euro or join Schengen, for example, should the government of the day just sign up for membership anyway, as seems to be the SNP position, or should they ask the Scottish people first?

From a different perspective, there may well be good reason to question whether an immediate jump into the EU post-independence is as desirable as most seem to think it would be in light of some of the excellent proposals being put forward by various grassroots organisations on the Yes side of the debate.

For the most part, the bulk of proposals coming from organisations like The Common Weal and The Radical Independence Campaign have a social democratic foundation and therefore speak of a need for stronger trade unions, enhanced worker’s rights, public ownership of essential services etc.

The problem with the EU, though, is that it is structurally designed to undermine these goals with an unambiguous neoliberal agenda of trade liberalization that places the free movement of the factors of production above all other considerations. Anybody need only look up the negative impact that the European Court of Justice’s Viking and Laval line of case law has had on the regulation and protection of labour in the Nordic countries to understand that the law of unintended consequences may have a role to play should Scotland dive head first into EU membership as soon as possible.

Finally, and perhaps this is the most straightforward way of tying together the points made above, we may look to the example of Norway.

Often held up as a model example not just of how things should be done in contemporary Europe, but also a tantalizing glimpse into what Scotland could become in the future. Excellent public services, low unemployment, strong workers’ rights and a long tradition of nation state democracy that has put the question of EU membership to its people not once, but twice, in referenda since the UK launched its application to join the EEC (now EU) in the 1970s.

At present the overwhelming consensus on both sides of the independence debate is that EU membership is an absolute must for an independent Scotland. And overall this may well prove to be correct. On balance the arguments in favour of EU membership could well outweigh the negatives. What the above has attempted to do, I hope successfully, however, is briefly contribute to that balancing process.

 

We Cant Go On Like This

9 May

The Status Quo in Contemporary Britain

Contemporary Britain is no longer fit for purpose. It has ceased to function effectively, failed to deliver, let down the people, become morally vacuous, is no longer supportable and has surrendered its right to be described as “Great” in any meaningful sense of the term. In short, it’s on its arse.

Observations of this nature have been commonplace amongst those immersed in the world of commentary and opinion for as long as anyone can remember, and there is certainly no shortage of enthusiasm for such sentiment today. Although worryingly prevalent, I am not referring here to the reactionary, daily mail subscribing lunatics who proclaim that all has gone to the wall, society has become bankrupt of all decency and that it won’t be long before dogs are throwing buckets of water on us in the streets. Instead, I am referring to the ever increasing number of everyday folk who share in the belief that something has gone horribly with the old country and that a fundamentally different approach to the nation’s problems is required.

Far from calling for some utopian revolution that would establish absolute equality for all, large sections of the population have simply come to the sober conclusion that the status quo is manifestly unsustainable and that “we can’t go on like this anymore.”

While there are of course numerous reasons why so many have come to express a desire for substantial change, the following provides a brief (but fair) summary of the situation:

– Britain is one of the richest countries in the world
– But Britain is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world
– Today, the 5 richest families in Britain earn more combined than the poorest 20% in society.
– Of all the world’s developed economies, Britain is the second lowest pay.
– Income inequality among working-age persons has risen faster in Britain than in any other OECD country since 1975.
– The number of people seeking food from food banks has tripled since 2012. A large number of these people are in work and are therefore NOT unemployed.
– The rate of under-five childhood deaths is higher in Britain than any other nation in Europe except Malta.

When faced with such a depressing set of facts, one is immediately compelled to ask what can be done about this dire state of affairs. Unfortunately, the response from all sides of the political establishment over the years has been, to put it kindly, varying degrees of “not very much.” Worse still, there has been little indication that there will be any change to this scandalous level of complacency anytime soon – an austerity driven, low pay economy is the only model on offer from Westminster, with even the Labour Party agreeing in principle.

And so, with voters across the UK fast approaching another general election utterly devoid of genuine alternatives, the future political direction of the country is once again to be left to those who can convince the largest number of people that they are the least bad option or – in what is without doubt my least favourite of all electoral propositions – the lesser of two evils.

What’s on Offer?

Thankfully, for the first time in many people’s lifetimes, there exists the possibility of bringing about some kind of substantial change to such a sorry set of circumstances in September this year.

The first point to make here is that whether one is in favour of independence or against it, the very fact that the option is even on the table at all conclusively proves the diagnosis that what we have right now simply isn’t good enough. After all, if everything was going along just fine, or even if things were just a tad unbearable, there would have been no need to pose the independence question in the first place.

Now, to be fair to the variety of different elements that make up the Yes campaign, they have at least put forward different packages of proposals that merit consideration as possible solutions to current levels of inequality and injustice. Whether it’s the plethora of policy papers from the Common Weal dealing with things like energy and industrial democracy, or the proposals for a living wage and enhanced childcare provision that are espoused by the bulk of those involved in the Yes campaign, there can be little doubt that there exists a variety of possible alternatives to the status quo that COULD help to bring about a more just and fair society.

The same cannot be said, however, for those on the other side of the referendum debate. For them, the entire line of argument rests on the proposition that independence will only make matters worse.

In making this point, the Better Together side have tended to focus entirely on proposals from the SNP and tried to point out that either the sums don’t add up or that the proposals leave too much down to wishful thinking.

While I believe this to be absolutely fine as a starting point for discussion in this debate, I am convinced that it is nowhere near good enough given the magnitude of problems faced by a great number of people in Scotland today. Surely they deserve more from those in favour of keeping Britain together than a semi-measured critique of one party’s specific vision for independence?

Perhaps I am misjudging the situation here, but I would guess that the grievances of the Scottish people will not be placated following a No vote in September by Westminster politicians telling them that they should just be thankful for what they have and that the alternative, a Yes vote, would have made things much worse.

And yet, despite it being abundantly clear to anyone with a pulse that things cannot go on as they are, those opposed to independence have been able to entirely side step the fundamental problem at the core of this debate – the disastrous status quo. As a result, they have offered absolutely nothing in terms of how they would do things differently after the referendum in order to alleviate the genuine hardship of millions of citizens.

I’ll say it again: the only reason why we are having a referendum in the first place is because the current situation is simply not acceptable.

It is therefore only logical that when asking why they should reject Yes as a solution to their problems, the Scottish public should also be entitled to ask how endorsing No will make things better.

The above statistics alone surely mean that a vote against independence cannot possibly be conceived as a ringing endorsement of contemporary Britain.
To treat a No vote as an acceptance of rampant levels of inequality would be simply absurd.

So what do we do now?

In light of the above, the question “so what do we do now” that Scotland will wake up to on the 19thSeptember – a question that is widely considered to be reserved for those in favour of independence – must surely be equally applicable to the other side in the debate.

And here we have a problem: except from one paper from the Scottish Labour Party, I have not seen or heard any proposals for a change in direction from those opposed to independence.

Instead, the main political parties in Britain have opted to bury their admittedly small differences and ram home the message that independence would make matters worse, rather than offer a frank and open critique of Britain today coupled with proposals for change.

It surely cannot be the case that everyone opposed to Scottish Independence fully endorses the devolution commitments of the Labour Party – particularly with regards to their commitments on issues like taxation and welfare policy that could make a difference to inequality.

So why are they not saying so?

We can all be certain that if the Labour party produced a policy paper on anything from education to energy there would be Tory and Lib Dem ministers queuing up to take a pop at it. But when it comes to setting out a plan for moving the nation forward following its closest shave with dissolution in 300 years, the Labour party’s devolution policy just sits there unchallenged.

While this may have made sense from a short term, tactical perspective earlier on in the campaign, there can be no doubt that it has now hit the point of diminishing returns. This is because evading the “what next” question not only leaves the Scottish people somewhat in the dark about the consequences of a no vote, it also, more importantly, is really starting to irritate people.

To start with, if we really are Better Together to such an extent that there is not even the slightest hint of contestation and debate between the 3 main political parties in the UK on the future of governance in Scotland after a No vote, what is the point in voting for any of them at all? And how come the 3 main Westminster parties can work together perfectly well when it comes to telling Scotland what it CANT have (e.g. the pound) but are all over the shop when it comes to telling Scotland what it CAN have if its votes No (e.g. specific commitments on devolution)?

I am in no doubt that as we get closer to the referendum the No campaign’s message of “vote to stay but we can’t tell you too much about what will happen if you do” is really starting to backfire. It is backfiring because those in favour of staying in Britain are now beginning to attract the very same criticism that the Yes side has been subject to all along: “we can’t vote for it, we just don’t know enough about it.”

With the people of Scotland going to the polls in September to vote in a referendum that would never have arisen in the first place had successive UK governments not failed so comprehensively on inequality and social justice, it is only right that those with a vote be given a genuine choice between competing visions of how best to address the magnitude of the problems faced by its citizenry today.

Should this not materialise, votes will have to be cast in the knowledge that there is only one side offering an alternative to our currently dire state of affairs.

A continuation of the status quo after September is not possible.

We can’t go on like this anymore.

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