Monthly Archives: June 2014

What do Eurosceptics Want?

The recent brouhaha over the appointment of Jean Claude Juncker as the new President of the European Commission is a bit of a mystery. Why is David Cameron and the UK government so frightened of a former Prime Minister of tiny Luxembourg? The Commission has little, if any, real power within the EU. Can anyone remember any, any initiative from the current incumbent, José Manuel Barroso? Apart from some injudicious comments on Scottish independence? Barroso is a bit of a non entity within the corridors of power in the EU. Does anybody really think that Mr Juncker is going to single handedly force the EU into some kind of Federal superstate, so beloved of the Eurosceptics?

The shadow boxing around Juncker is just a side show for the real thing. Which is the attempt by our current Tory led government to renegotiate Britain’s treaties with the EU. Alas, nobody seems to know just what the renegotiation might look like. Much of the pressure for this seems to come from those who want the UK to leave the EU altogether. UKIP and a substantial minority in the Tory party fall into this group. As does much of the mainstream press emanating from London. However most of the Tory party, including David Cameron and George Osborne, want the UK to remain in the EU, and hope that somehow, a deal can be done with the other 27 member states.

This though is where it gets interesting. Just what do the eurosceptics, as opposed to those who want to leave, want? A lot of vague talk about regulations and competitiveness, but little in the way of specific proposals. This morning on radio 4, we had more of this waffle, though David Davies, the former Tory leadership challenger, at least made some attempt to go a bit beyond generalities. He mentioned limits to the free movement of people and the amount of regulations that were handicapping British businesses. At the same time Mr Davies extols the virtues of the Single Market. It makes one wonder if any of these people know what the Single Market involves? For the free movement of people is one of the four pillars of the Single Market, the others are the free movement of goods, services and capital. Together they make up the Single Market. It is a bit naive to pretend that you can curtail one without someone else wanting to curtail the others.

The other issue that Mr Davies raised was the excessive number of EU regulations that apparently are handicapping British firms. Due to these dastardly regulations British firms cannot compete in the global market. It was notable that Mr Davies did not give a single example of these regulations, nor did the BBC interviewer deem it appropriate to ask for some examples. Why let details spoil a good diatribe? Even more surprisingly the BBC interviewer didn’t bother to ask why unnamed regulations were a handicap to British firms, but not apparently a handicap to German, Austrian, Finnish firms for example. It would seem most unlikely that there are any EU regulations that only apply to British firms. So what is Mr Davies actually objecting to? The inability of British firms to compete with their continental counterparts? After all EU regulations, by definition must handicap all EU firms. Has Mr Davies and the Tory party given up on the UK being able to compete on a level playing field with Germany and the other member states? Is the only way that British firms can compete in the global market by operating under lesser regulations than the others?

What exactly are these regulations anyway? Across the EU, the member states have all agreed that an integral part of the Single Market is Health and Safety. Al,l that is except the UK apparently. When eurosceptics object to the EU, they are mostly objecting to the various Health and Safety regulations that have been introduced to ensure there is a level playing field for all firms and producers. These regulations are designed to protect both consumers and workers. It is no wonder that Mr Davies and his eurosceptic friends are unwilling to specify which regulations they object to. It is not much of a rallying cry to say, leave the EU so that you as a consumer will have less rights and that you as a worker will have less protection. For at bottom this is what the eurosceptics want. A UK free from just about all kinds of health and safety and social rights. Their way forward for the UK is as a low wage, low standard economy for the majority and a safe haven for the very rich in the City of London. If you want to protect your rights as a consumer and as a worker, then they are much more likely to be secured in an independent Scotland than remaining in backward looking UK.

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World Cup 2014 – First Reflections

2014-brazil-world-cup-techThe World Cup has now reached its half way stage, with all the group matches completed. I haven’t watched all the matches but the ones I have seen have all been good and enjoyable. The overall impression from the TV coverage is that this is a well run tournament and all the fans in Brazil seem to be having a great time, whatever the results of their team. Compared to the last World Cup in South Africa, this is a much more open tournament with more goals and most teams at least trying to play attacking football.

As the tournament is in South America it is not surprising that South American teams have done very well. Not quite as well as four years ago, when all five teams progressed to the second round. This time there were six South American countries in the tournament and five are still in contention. Only Ecuador failed to progress. Not 100%, but still an exceptional 83% success rate. The North and Central American countries have also done exceptionally well. Three out of their four teams progressed, a very impressive 75% success rate. This is even better than in South Africa. Then come the relative failures, Europe and Africa. European countries have made no progress at all compared to four years ago. Once again only six of the 13 countries in the tournament have managed to progress, which represents a 46% success rate. African countries on the other hand, perhaps surprisingly, have improved on their showing in South Africa. This time two of the five countries have progressed, representing a success rate of 40%. The big losers this time around was Asia. Last time two of their four countries qualified for the second round. This time none did so. Very disappointing and on the whole their representatives played poorly.

As regards the football on offer, a marked improvement from four years ago, with more goals and more excitement. The usual quota of questionable refereeing decisions to add to the talking points. Unfortunately we have also had the unsavoury and most unsporting behaviour of Luis Suárez to contend with. Hopefully his vampire imitation will remain a one-off.  While goals are always welcome, it has to be said that some of the defending has been pretty woeful. In particular by Spain and Switzerland. Still it all adds to the excitement and unpredictability of the matches. Who would have predicted Spain, Italy, England, Portugal and Russia to all fall at the first hurdle?

A special word of praise must go to Costa Rica, who not only topped their group, but sent both Italy and England home early. Good play by the Central American team who richly deserved their success. The country I felt most sorry for was Ghana. As in South Africa the Ghanaians played some lovely football and were always looking to break forward. They were, unfortunately for them, in a very tough group, with Germany, Portugal and the USA. I will miss their brand of football.

Looking ahead, France have looked good, but in a very weak group and massively helped by an exceptionally poor performance by Switzerland. Not enough evidence to tell if France are really as good as they look. Nigeria will surely test them a bit more. The Netherlands have also played well, though again helped by atrocious defending, but they look well organized and in Arjen Robben clearly have a match winner. Germany are though the team that has looked the most impressive in the early matches. Strong, disciplined and as usual well organized. No stand out player, but just about everyone looks very good. Neither Brazil nor Argentina have fully convinced me so far. Both can be very good going forward, but both still seem a bit short on defensive organisation. Surprisingly neither country seems to have a really good creative midfield player, one who can read and control the game. Still, both should progress to the quarter-finals and then who knows.

It is worth remembering that in South Africa, though the countries from South and North America did exceptionally well in the group stages, by the semi-finals all but one, had been eliminated.  On the other hand, while only six European countries made it to the last 16, three went on to the semi-finals and the final of course was an all European affair. The way the draw has worked out this time, there will again be at least one South American country in the semi-finals. Four of the South American survivors are all in the same quarter of the draw. Brazil will be favourites to make it from this mini-group. There they are likely to face either Germany or France. The three North American survivors have not had it so lucky. Mexico face the Netherlands, though Costa Rica must have a very good chance of beating Greece. Alas, their reward is likely to be a match against the Netherlands, who will be favourites to reach another semi-final. Their opponents could be Argentina, who face Switzerland and then the winners of the Belgium v USA match.

We thus have the prospect of two very high profile semi-finals and perhaps the dream final – Brazil v Argentina. This if it were to happen, it would be the first all South American final since 1950. When as it happens, the World Cup was last held in Brazil. That final was Brazil v Uruguay and the surprising winners were Uruguay. All of this is just pure speculation at the moment. Football matches rarely go as expected, as the group stages can testify. Still some exciting matches to look forward to. Let the games begin!

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A Constitution for Scotland

One of the many attractions of an independent Scotland is the prospect that we will have our own written constitution. This alone is a pretty good reason for voting Yes. What makes it even more exciting is the prospect that we can participate in the process of devising and writing our new constitution. Before we get to this position we need to win a Yes vote and then to negotiate the details of the independence settlement. This will of necessity include some kind of interim constitutional framework. The Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence refers to a “constitutional platform” They have now published a beefed up version of this platform as a draft for an interim constitution for Scotland. You can read the whole thing here.

There has already been all kinds of comment on this draft, much of it ignoring the plainly stated description of it as both a “draft” and an “interim” constitution. The strong point of this draft is that it is primarily about securing the continuity of the existing arrangements plus whatever additional arrangements are needed to enable an independent Scotland to legislate in the currently reserved areas. Continuity is good in this context. As an interim constitution we don’t want it to contain any new measures that may be difficult to amend. For some of the more considered responses to this draft, see Aileen McHarg, Professor of Public Law at the University of Strathclyde, here, and Stephen Tierney, Professor of Constitutional Theory at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law, here.

While this draft of an interim constitution is a positive step forward, I am not too concerned about its contents, precisely because it will be an “interim” constitution. What I am interested in is the next step in our constitutional adventure – the creation of our founding constitution, the one that is meant to be more or less permanent. This is when things start to get serious. Just how will our new constitution be devised and who will be involved in writing it? The Scottish Government has consistently made it clear that it want an open and inclusive approach to this constitution making. As the draft states: This draft Bill provides for a permanent written constitution to be drawn up post-independence by a Constitutional Convention, entirely autonomous from the Scottish Government. That proposal reflects our strong belief that the process by which Scotland develops and adopts its written constitution will be as important as its content. It should be inclusive and participative, reflecting the fundamental constitutional principle that the people, rather than politicians or state institutions, are the sovereign authority in Scotland.

From the above, three principles can tentatively be established regarding our new constitution. One, it will be drawn up by a Constitution Convention, two, the process should be inclusive and participative and three, the people will be the sovereign authority. This is all well and good, but as with all principles, the devil lies in the detail. And as yet there is, rightly, little in the way of detail. This means we can still influence the ways in which the constitution is to be devised. Andrew Tickell at Lallands Peat Worrier has already very helpfully explored some of the intricacies and pitfalls of something as innocuous sounding as “the people”. His post can be found here.

If we do not want to leave the arrangements for devising our new constitution to the government and the “usual suspects”, then we need to start thinking now about how the principles outlined above are made concrete. Radical Independence groups have already begun to discuss this. My initial contribution to this debate is in the form of some key questions. Just questions at the moment, but if you don’t ask the right questions, you get the wrong answers. Not that I am suggesting these are the only questions to ask, but they will do as a starter for 10.

The Scottish Government have made it clear that the body to be charged with drawing up our constitution will be a Constitutional Convention. Are there other approaches to constitution making? If there is to be a convention, can it be supplemented by regional or local conventions?

Whatever approach is finally taken one of the key questions will be on the membership of the convention(s). Should the members be selected, nominated or elected, or a combination of all three? Crucially the key question will be, who gets to participate in this selection, nomination or election?

Once the convention(s) have been set up will they want any kind of technical/legal support to help them in their deliberations? If so, who will decide who will provide this service?

As the convention(s) start the work of deliberating and reaching conclusions, another crucial question will be, what kind of reporting and monitoring of progress do we want to see established? Is leaving everything to a convention a fully inclusive and participatory process? If we want members of the public to be involved, how can this be done?

Once the arguing and deliberating has been done and a final constitution has been agreed by the convention, what happens next? Who will have the final say on our constitution? Do we have another referendum to say Yae or Nae to the constitution?

A final series of questions relate to the timescale for the whole process. Should we set a start date for the convention to start work? Perhaps more importantly should we set a completion date for its deliberations? If not, there may be the risk that the work goes on and on and hard decisions are postponed almost indefinitely.

Lots to think about in drawing up a new constitution. But it is worth getting it right. As the introduction to the draft bill states: A written constitution is the basis of everyday life, setting out and protecting the rights and aspirations of the people of Scotland. It will be the highest and strongest of laws – a statement of the fundamental principles by which a country chooses to live, regardless of the political party in power.

 

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Mini revolution at FC Barcelona

Now for something completely different. It’s midsummer and we’re well into the World Cup in Brazil, so time to take stock of what is happening at Can Barça. And this summer it looks like a mini revolution is in the making. Starting at the top, with Luis Enrique installed as the new coach. This will be Barça’s fourth coach in as many years. Luis Enrique comes with years of experience of playing for Barcelona and some useful experience as a coach. However he is untested at this level, as was Guardiola of course. He seems to be a very confident and determined person with his own ideas of how he wants the team to play. We wish him well.

As regards the team itself, it looks like there will be significant changes in every line. Beginning with the goalkeeper, where there have been two new signings – Marc Ter Stegen from Borussia Mönchengladbach and Chilean international Claudio Bravo who has signed from Real Sociedad. It will be fascinating to see who ends up as the first choice keeper. Whoever it is, he will have a hard job to match the record of Victor Valdés, who has left the club of his own volition. Still recovering from a serious injury, Valdés’ own future is very uncertain.

The centre of the defence is the one area where everyone has been expecting major change for the past three seasons. Perhaps this time, there will be new faces in the defence. Carles Puyol has finally had to admit defeat in his attempts to overcome his injury problems. It also seems that Javier Mascherano will revert to playing in midfield as cover for Busquets. This leaves the team with just two central defenders – Gerard Piqué and Marc Bartra. Hence all the talk about the need to sign not just one, but two central defenders. The usual suspects are bandied about, Marquinhos from PSG and Mathieu from Valencia, to name just two, but as yet no deal has been done for anyone. The other possible change in the defence is at right back. The future of Dani Alves is once again a topic for newspaper columns. Central defenders seems to be more of a priority right now.

Midfield is another line that will definitely see major changes. Cesc Fàbregas has already left, bound for Chelsea, while Xavi has all but confirmed his departure from the club for a season or two in Qatar. Ivan Rakitic, the Croatian international has already been signed from Sevilla. He will add some much needed physical presence to the midfield as well as a good technique. Whether he can replace Xavi is less certain. He seems more in the mold of a Seydou Keita type player, someone who played an essential part in the successes of the Guardiola team. The player the club would like to take over from Xavi appears to be Koke, the Spanish international from Atlético Madrid. Koke though will not come cheap, €40-50 million seems to be the minimum that Atlético will demand. Assuming the player wants to leave anyway. He is an Atlético fan and may not want to leave, at least not just now, as Atlético get another chance at the Champions League. There will be one another new player in midfield for next season, Rafa Alcántara. Rafinha, as he is known, is the younger brother of former Barça hope, Thiago. Rafinha of course is just coming home, after a year on loan with Celta Vigo, where his coach was none other than Luis Enrique. Can Rafinha fill the hole left by Xavi? The other midfielder from last season is Sergi Roberto, who has never quite made it into the first team as a regular. If Barcelona do sign Koke or someone similar, it is hard to see much of a future for Sergi Roberto at the club.

Up front there will be at least one new arrival in the shape of Gerard Deulofeu, another product of Barcelona’s famous youth system. Deulofeu spent last season on loan at Everton, where he did OK, but never secured a regular starting place. Everyone at the Camp Nou expects great things from Deulofeu, but he will find it no easier to break through at Barcelona than at Everton. Most commentators reckon that Christian Tello, who only made sporadic appearances for the team last season, will leave during the summer. Messi and Neymar will remain as the stars of the team. The big question for Luis Enrique is, do Barça need a different type of forward to add variety to their attacking options. This has been a bit of a perennial topic for Barça fans, along with who will be the next central defender. No one knows for certain what Luis Enrique thinks of this, but the press is full of all kinds of names of possible reinforcements for the attack. The latest name to appear was Luis Suárez, the Uruguayan striker at Liverpool. He of course would cost a fortune, assuming Liverpool would sell their star asset. This is where the other Barcelona strikers appear. Both Pedro and Alexis Sánchez are deemed to be transferable if the price is right. The Luis Suárez story has Alexis going in the opposite direction to Liverpool, thus reducing the cost to Barcelona.

It all sounds a bit fanciful, but the alleged coming and goings of footballs is all part and parcel of the summer fun for fans everywhere. And stranger things have happened in the world of football. Looks like a good forward line though – Messi, Neymar and Suárez!

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They love us, they love us not?

I keep getting confused by the messages from the No campaign. At times their spokespeople emphasise how much they love us. The UK is apparently one great big happy family! A family of nations in which we all happily pool and share resources. Then we must not forget the love bombing in which the great and the good of the rest of the UK tell us how wonderful we are.  Scotland on this account is the best thing since sliced cheese! Why even the Pope and the Americans all want us to stay in the UK.

Alas for the No campaign this love and kindness seems to be just skin deep. Otherwise how can we explain why Unionists spend so much time threatening us with doom and gloom if we dared to vote for independence? We are in fact, according to these Unionists who profess to love us so much, threatened with outright hostility if we become independent. We will lose the pound, border posts will be erected, access to medical research will be lost, we will be unceremoniously ejected from the EU, and to cap it all we will no longer be able to watch our favourite BBC TV programmes!  Ouch!

It is all a bit confusing. One moment Westminster offers us security and protection, a caring elder brother who has our best interests at heart. Yet, almost in the same breath we are told that Westminster will play hardball with us, that they will do us no favours if we dared to leave their clutches.  In short the message seems to be that if we vote Yes, Westminster will be out to punish us.

Not exactly the behaviour one would expect from a caring family member. You support members of your family when they seek to start out on their own. Whatever they do, short of committing crimes, they remain part of your family and are never rejected.

It would be a service to all of us voting in the referendum if the No campaign were to come clean about where they really stand. Do they truly love and care for us? In which case we can confidently vote Yes, knowing that we will work together in the spirit of friendship and respect that characterises all good families. On the other hand if the rest of the UK really despises us and wants to hurt and punish us, then the sooner we vote Yes to get away from this hateful relationship the better.

So come on guys, tell us the truth. It can’t be that hard.

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Ireland and UK – Better Together?

It is one of the key and surprising features of the No campaign that their claim of Better Together only applies to Scotland. I have written about this previously, here, when I looked at how well Germany and Austria appeared to met all the criteria for Better Together. Of course the No campaign never make the case that other small countries would benefit from becoming part of a larger and stronger neighbour. The most obvious example for Better Together to cite would be Ireland. A close neighbour, sharing the same language, customs and history, surely Ireland needs the support of the UK just as much as Scotland apparently does. Especially when Ireland was an integral part of the UK before it became independent.  Why is there no Better Together with Ireland campaign from our Unionist friends?

This attempt to erase Ireland from the UK’s history is particularly strange on the part of the Tories. This after all is the party that is still officially called the Conservative and Unionist party. The Unionist bit, by the way, refers to the Union with Ireland, not Scotland. This is a useful reminder that the Tories have consistently opposed any and every proposal to devolve power within the UK. We should remember this when considering their latest offer for Scotland. The old saying beware Greeks baring gifts springs to mind. The present Tory party was created to stop devolution to Ireland way back in 1912. Though the other parties supported Irish devolution, none of them supported independence for Ireland. Not even a majority of Irish people were campaigning for independence in 1912. However the failure of Westminster to deliver any kind of Irish devolution is what tragically led to the events of 1916 and war with the UK. This is not an essay in Irish history, but even a brief recollection of the recent past is enough to confirm just how important Ireland was to the UK.

So why does nobody at Westminster, not even the Conservative and Unionist party, seek to bring Ireland back into the strength, security and warmth of the UK? Perhaps the Irish no longer count. Now they have gone, the great British public can safely ignore them. Calls for solidarity among working people no longer extend to Dublin, Cork or anywhere else in the Republic. What kind of solidarity is that? On the other hand the relations between Ireland and the UK have never been warmer or closer. Witness the recent official visits of the Queen to Dublin and the Irish President to London. Joint ministerial statements confirm this commitment to strengthened co-operation between the UK and Ireland.

Clearly Ireland, as an independent country is doing very well. So, if Ireland can successfully thrive as an independent country without the benefits of union with her larger neighbour, why can Scotland not do so?  Why is it that Scotland and apparently Scotland alone, needs to be in a political union with its larger neighbour? Back to the beginning and the question of why is there no Better Together with Ireland campaign?  Is it because Ireland has access to a greater reserve of natural resources? Clearly not so. Perhaps the Irish are just so much brighter, more intelligent and more capable than Scots? This would seem unlikely and if it were true to any extent, then surely we should not be allowed to vote or stand in UK elections? If we are so incompetent that we could not run our own country, why are we allowed a share in running the UK?  Not much mileage in this line of argument.

There is no Better Together with Ireland campaign for the simple reason that no-one either in Ireland or the UK is interested in one. Nor does anyone think that Ireland rejoining the UK would be of benefit to anyone. Which once again brings us back to why does Scotland need to remain in the UK?  All the disasters that apparently await Scotland if we vote for independence, have somehow not happened to Ireland. It is truly amazing that with all the scare stories we get from the No campaign, no-one in our media seems to have the wit or the gumption to ask why did these disasters not befall Ireland? But then challenging Unionists and Britnats does not seem to be part of the job remit of our media just now. Ireland is a reminder that a relatively small part of the UK can break free and prosper as an independent country. Ireland is a success story and it is no wonder that the No campaign do not want to be reminded of it.

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A couple of Questions for Unionists

Could someone explain to me just why the No campaign is so unrelentingly negative about Scotland? And why do they get away with this pretty much unchallenged?  Most of the focus of the No campaign has been on the economy. While they call themselves Better Together, the reality is that there is little positive about their campaign, when it comes to the Scottish economy and its prospects with independence. A few poor souls occasionally remember to say that of course an independent Scotland could be successful. However most of the No speakers just hammer on and on about how worse off we will all be if we vote for independence. We get a lot about the uncertainties and the risks that independence will bring. I should rewrite that last sentence, for in truth there is little room for uncertainty with the publications from the UK government. They are all about the certainty of impoverishment that independence will unleash on all of us. We will not be able to afford our pensions, public services will have to be cut, taxes will have to go up, mortgages will rise, as will the price of everything. The message is abundantly clear – without the largesse and strength of the rest of the UK, Scotland will become an impoverished basket case. An independent Scotland will be too wee and too poor to survive.

There is though a couple of problems with all these wild assertions, for wild assertions they are. None of the claims from the No camp are backed up by evidence, historical precedent or reason. Not that any of these concepts has every bothered the minds of our BritNat and Unionist friends. But in the spirit of goodwill, let us assume for a moment that the No camp is right and that Scotland is indeed too poor to be a successful independent country. What should then be the big, big problem for Better Together is to explain precisely why this is the case? It is almost impossible to argue that Scotland does not have a rich vein of resources – in and under the sea, on the land. in addition to the talents of the people who live here. So why is it after 300 hundred years of Union are we in such a poor economic state? The benefits of these 300 years of Union are not obvious to most Scots. The levels of poverty, deprivation and inequality should be regarded as a disgrace and an affront to all of us.  The Union has not led to any kind of better present for most Scots. Yet Unionist politicians and their friends in the media seem to glory in their assertions of how poor our country is. They seem to relish the prospect of Scotland remaining forever in thrall to the largesse and goodwill of England. For not only do Unionists rejoice in claiming that we are too poor, they propose to do nothing about it. Where are the Unionist plans to turn Scotland into one of the richest and most successful of countries in the world? Surely a campaign that was based on Better Together would at the very least be outlining how Scotland could become rich enough to be independent in 20 or 30 years time? Or are we so incompetent that we can never aspire to achieve what the likes of Denmark, Slovenia, Slovakia and countless other relatively small countries have managed to do – become successful independent countries?

Given the resources available to us, if we are indeed still too poor to be an economically successful independent country, then surely this can only be the fault of the Union. I would like to see the Yes campaign challenge Unionists on this contradiction. Why after 300 years of what is supposed to have been the most successful union in history do Unionists persist in claiming that Scotland is too poor to succeed as an independent country? It would also be good, if somewhat miraculous if the media in Scotland were to just occasionally ask this question?

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