Tag Archives: Scotland

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.

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.

Ah dinnae even like the pound anyway

13 Feb

George Osborne announced today that “Sharing the pound is not in the interests of either the people of Scotland or the rest of the UK. The people of the rest of the UK wouldn’t accept it and [the Westminster] parliament wouldn’t pass it.”

In making this statement the Chancellor, supposedly backed by senior figures in the Lib Dems and Labour, has explicitly stated that an independent Scotland would definitely not be able to retain the pound as its currency. The question of whether this intervention constitutes a genuine threat that would be followed through in the event of independence, or is just more scaremongering from those in favour of the continuation of the United Kingdom, is likely to take centre stage in the referendum debate in the coming weeks. The SNP have already said that they believe it to be something of a bluff, claiming that it would be absurd for a UK chancellor to insist that English companies, who do an immense volume of trade with Scotland, incur increased transactions costs as a result of Scotland having to use a different currency.

Whether one agrees with the SNP’s assessment here or not, there can be no doubt that the speech sits squarely within a No campaign strategy that has relentlessly pushed the negative consequences of independence to a far greater extent than it has tried to make a positive case for staying in the UK. This approach is in many ways understandable given that so much uncertainty exists with regards to Scotland becoming an independent country and I certainly have no quarrel with subjecting the SNP’s vision for independence to intense scrutiny. However, it is clear that many undecided voters across the country have been left feeling rather put off by the incessantly negative, doomsday scenario rhetoric emanating from the No campaign and I am in no doubt that this has been a significant factor in the slight increase in support for Yes in recent weeks.

As one of those undecided voters who has become increasingly disillusioned by the No campaign’s reluctance to make a positive case for the Union, I was rather excited recently when poll after poll showed support for Yes holding up and I began to naively believe that it would lead to a more open and constructive debate. There was certainly no shortage of commentary and opinion over the past few weeks about the need for the No campaign to start putting a more positive spin on things in response to the perceived hardening of support for Yes.

And yet, instead of having that more broad minded discussion amongst Scots from both sides of the divide, we have been treated to interventions by a noticeably flustered Conservative government who until recently had justified their lack of involvement in the debate by claiming that the decision could only be made by the Scots themselves.

First, David Cameron gave a speech that would easily make any list of the top 10 most uninspiring speeches of the past decade on why he believes Scotland should stay in the United Kingdom. Live from the Olympic Park, Stratford, the Prime Minister concluded his speech by urging those in England, Northern Ireland and Wales to let us Scots know that they want us to stay. He then went on to open up the floor to questions, the first of which was about floods in the south of England.

Then, evidently perplexed by the complete irrelevance of big Dave’s speech, the Tory high command sent Chancellor George Osborne to Edinburgh to tell the Scots that a vote for independence would mean losing the pound. Immediate reaction to the speech in the predominantly right wing UK press has been emphatic, attracting the altogether predictable plaudits of a “crushing blow” and “a game changer” whilst I have been a little less convinced.

Although I don’t doubt that Osborne’s intervention today will carry with it some implications for the outcome of the referendum in September (it certainly has much more of a chance of making it as a crux moment when the history books are written than Dave’s Olympic park debacle) I am not convinced that it will have the devastating effect that so many seem to think it will.

For a start there is always the risk of people in Scotland perceiving the Chancellor’s jaunt north of the border as nothing more than an out of touch posh boy coming up to give us a lecture before rushing off back to London.

Furthermore, I’m not really convinced that people care all that much about currency. As the future of UK and Scotland website points out, in a recent TNS BMRB poll only 4% said that the issue of currency was either the first or the second most important consideration in their minds when deciding which way to vote. In another TNS BMRB poll for BBC Scotland, currency came only eighth in importance in a list of ten referendum issues respondents were asked to rank. Add to this the “Ah dinnae even like the pound anyway” response that has been circulating amongst particularly insightful characters this afternoon and you can see that the whole currency issue might not be all that the Tories hope it to be.

In my opinion, however, even more significant than any of the above is the fact that the UK establishment have now well and truly wheeled out the big guns. By deciding to have the two most senior politicians in the United Kingdom substantially intervene in the referendum debate with 7 months left to go, one very important question springs to mind: what next? What else can the No campaign possibly do between now and September to further counter the arguments of the Yes campaign given that the Prime Minister has already made the emotional plea and the Chancellor the pragmatic? Short of getting the Queen up to Edinburgh to give her take on the situation I fail to see who or what the No campaign have left to call on.

What really intrigues me about today’s announcement, therefore, is the position that it leaves the No campaign in between now and September, particularly if it doesn’t have the desired effect of slashing support for Yes. Surely few things could be more negative from the perspective of trying to win votes than telling Scotland that they would no longer be able to use their own currency. And if that doesn’t work, what else does the No campaign have in the negativity locker? Pretty much nothing would be my guess. There would only really be one thing left for it then wouldn’t there?

If there is a positive case to be heard for the Union, the Chancellor’s speech today might just mean that we get to hear it.

Independence and Democracy

11 Dec

Over the course of the independence campaign the Yes side has relentlessly regurgitated the fact that 91% of Scottish MPs voted against both the cap on welfare payments and the imposition of the bedroom tax earlier this year, with absolutely no effect on these policies being implemented in Scotland.

The crucial point being made by those in favour of voting yes, therefore, is not just that the British electoral system has resulted in the people of Scotland being staggeringly underrepresented in the Westminster decision making process; but also that this has led to an entirely unsuitable, Anglo-centric policy programme being imposed north of the border against the will of the electorate.

Now, regardless of whether one ascribes to the idea that Tory policy is tailor made for England, there can be no doubt that at present, by virtue of their place within a UK state that overwhelmingly rejected amending first past the post, the possibility of the people of Scotland gaining an enhanced level of democratic representation anytime soon is simply non-existent.

Accordingly, in what some might describe as a shocking betrayal of fence sitters everywhere, I am of the opinion that, from a democratic perspective at least, the argument in favour of independence is overwhelming.

Allow me to explain…

For all that remains uncertain about the concept, independence would unquestionably bring about a far more representative form of government by virtue of the Scottish Parliament`s infinitely more proportional electoral system. Whilst this shift in and of itself would not immediately solve problems of democracy at the regional and local levels, it would surely enhance Scotland’s democratic credentials at the national level.

Independence would also, in my view, lead to a proliferation of new political parties from across the political spectrum. The SNP are the obvious example here: hanging together out of necessity rather than through choice, it would be sure to fragment into parties more suitable to the political ideologies of its members and supporters following a yes vote next year.

A Scottish Parliament composed solely of directly elected politicians would also bring an end to the absurd mechanism of an unelected second chamber in the national legislature. Despite being the one time flagship policy of golden boy turned Cameron’s toy Nick Clegg, House of Lords reform has been all but abandoned with more and more peers joining that most unnecessary of establishments on a regular basis.

Without really pushing this point any further, surely the fact that Britain and Iran are the only two countries on earth where clerics automatically sit in the legislature is enough to highlight the problem here?

And what about the Queen? Surely an independent Scotland wouldn’t be so drunk on democracy as to abolish the status of the hereditary monarch – especially with so much pro royalist sentiment in the air?

Well, perhaps not immediately.

For all that deeply troubles me about the retention of an unelected monarch as the head of state, it may be something that those of a republican persuasion simply have to tolerate initially in an independent Scotland. The prospect of having what will in all likelihood be the chinless figure of Prince Charles as head of state for a wee while certainly won’t swing my vote either way.

Ideally, an independent Scotland should have a referendum on the retention of the monarchy at some point – something that was for a long time the SNP’s position until they capitulated to perceived public fondness for the Royals. At the very least there would be the potential for a debate on the retention of an unelected monarchy north of the border post independence; something that is beyond fantasy within the UK as a whole at the moment.

From a different perspective, it is certainly feasible for the status quo, should it be allowed to continue, to produce profound consequences for the people of Scotland in the relatively near future with regards to Europe.

As is well documented, the Conservative party have indicated their desire to hold an in/out referendum on the nation’s EU membership in 2017 should they win the next general election. The great danger here, then, is that the people of Scotland could vote overwhelmingly to remain in the EU following a no vote in 2014 and nevertheless find themselves outside the EU by virtue of the remainder of the UK voting to leave.

So, with the prospect of Scotland being dragged out of the world`s largest free trade bloc by virtue of its continued place in the UK, the question has to be: should the current problem of blatant underrepresentation be tackled via independence or be left in large part up to the wishes of an English electorate that appears to be increasingly susceptible to Faragism?

You could actually leave UKIP out of this completely since this is not just a problem for those of a pro-European perspective – there is after all no guarantee that the people of Scotland would vote to stay in the EU in the event of a referendum on the issue. The crucial point is simply that a question of such importance for Scotland should be decided by a majority of the people in Scotland, and I would insist on this being applied to any process of joining the EU post-independence as well.

Admittedly, the simply sketched out arguments above are in no way novel. There is always the danger that the argument from democracy is open to the charge of being too idealistic and not of relevance to the vast majority of Scots who are more concerned about things like economic stability, growth, jobs etc. By way of response, however, I would contend that a state with a strong democratic foundation and a properly functioning, representative electoral system would be a good place to start when trying to address all of these concerns properly.

By way of summary then, independence would bring about the following situation: A parliament composed of politicians directly elected on the basis of proportional representation; the removal of hereditary peers, racketeers and clergymen from the legislative process; localised control over the great European question and a potential referendum on the retention of the Queen as a symbolic head of state.

In the alternative, if Scotland were to vote no, what would the chances be of even one of the abovementioned reforms taking place in any of our lifetimes?

As I see it, a more democratic country might not lead to a better future, but it certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

That being said, I might still vote no. Back on the fence…

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