Monthly Archives: November 2014

More lies from the Tory/LibDem coalition?

We are shortly to be treated to another fairy tale from the Chancellor. Alas the Autumn Statement is unlikely to presage any happy ending. Apart from the NHS, it seem that even further cuts are in store for the rest of public spending. All of this will be accompanied by the usual tale that “we” or more often “the country” cannot afford so much public spending.  This is a kind of ghost story designed solely to frighten the public. A very successful story, backed up by the Labour party and just about all of our media. Nevertheless it is all one big porky.

It’s really about taxation and not spending

The mantra that “the country” cannot afford to continue spending on whatever item is under threat is most obviously a lie in that virtually no-one who makes this claim actually wants the spending to stop. Which is rather strange, since this is what is usually meant when someone says he or she cannot afford something. I cannot afford to buy a Rolls Royce car, so I do not buy a Rolls Royce car. But when it comes to prescription charges for example, when Labour, the Tories and the LibDems all say “we” cannot afford this public expenditure, they are not advocating that people stop buying prescriptions. The money will still get spent.  But instead of coming out of general taxation, the same spending will come out of individual pockets. So it is pretty clear that “we” or whoever these people mean, can in fact afford this spending. The same applies to just about all public spending, such as tuition fees. The money will continue to be spent, so it is a bit of a lie to claim that “we” or “the country” cannot afford this spending.

What Labour and their cronies mean is that they want to reduce the level of taxes or to hold them at the current level. They advocate a switch from publicly funded spending to the same spending,  but by by individuals. Which is perfectly understandably from Tories and LibDems, as at bottom they both represent the well-off, the rich, the very rich and the obscenely rich. People who can afford to buy whatever they want and who would benefit most from reduced taxation. But it still feels a bit strange from Labour, which at least pretended to represent the poor and the less well-off. But then again just about everything from Labour is a bit strange these days.

The country can afford more and better public services

It is quite remarkable that we have reached this stage in our public debate where the starting point is can the country afford good public services. An incredible achievement for the Tories, ably abetted by their fellow travellers in Labour and the LibDems. It should not need emphasising, but the UK is a very, very rich state. One of the richest in the world. A state with a very large and growing number of millionaires and billionaires. Starting with a significant number of members of the cabinet. The cabinet as a whole is probably wealthy enough to pay off the national debt among themselves. Yet these people and the big companies, both British and multinational that dominate the UK economy seem to pay relatively little in taxes. Some in fact like to boast about how little they contribute to the welfare of their fellow citizens.

There should never have been a debate about the affordability of good quality public services. That this has become the dominant frame of reference is just another example of the monumental failure of the left in the UK. How this came about is not for this post, but it is worth noting that Labour may have once upon a time merited inclusion in the left, but that time has long since gone. Labour remains part of the problem and in no sense part of the solution. We just need to keep reminding people that Labour is part of the big lie.

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Too little, too late?

Is the above to be the long term verdict on the Smith Commission recommendations, published today? First thought, Lord Smith and his team deserve a warmth round of thanks. To have come up with any kind of agreement among the five political parties is quite an achievement it itself. The Commission also seems to have done a fair job of media management. Nearly all of the media are reporting the proposals in glowing terms, or in the case of some English outlets at least as some significant new powers for Scotland. First impressions from the media, however, are rarely very reliable indicators of lasting success.

My reading of the report chimes very much with the verdict of Professor Michael Keating from Aberdeen University, who sums up the report thus: The Smith commission report provides the minimum amount of extra devolution required to meet the expectations raised by the famous ‘vow’ from the three UK party leaders in the last week of the referendum campaign. Minimum amount of change perfectly describes the essentials of the recommendations.

Not to be churlish, there are a few positives in the report relating to the Crown Estate in Scotland, Air Passenger Duty, elections and the operation of the Scottish Parliament, and a few others. All important, but hardly the stuff of Devo-Max or a Powerhouse Parliament.

However the recommendations have to be judged against the objectives set out by the Commission itself. It refers to them as the three pillars:

  1. providing a durable but responsive constitutional settlement for the    governance of Scotland
  2. delivering prosperity, a healthy economy, jobs, and social justice
  3. strengthening the financial responsibility of the Scottish Parliament

It is not clear that the recommendations will fully achieve any of these pillars. As regards the first – a durable and responsive constitutional settlement – there are two obvious weaknesses. The first is that without a written constitution there is no way that the current or proposed constitutional settlement can be made permanent. UK legislation can state whatever it likes, but no legislation can bind any future government. It is also noteworthy that the report recommends that changes to the electoral system or the workings of the Scottish Parliament be subject to a two-thirds majority. This limitation and requirement is to be imposed on the Scottish Parliament by legislation at Westminster. However no such requirement is deemed necessary for Westminster itself.

This highlights the other weakness in the proposals, namely that they focus entirely on Scotland. This may seem a strange criticism, but given the result of the referendum, any proposals for constitutional change need to take account of how they will affect the governance of the UK as a whole. This not exactly the fault of the Commission which was restricted in its remit. However it does raise serious question marks as to the willingness of the rest of the UK to accept the recommendations as they stand.

When it comes to the economy, jobs and social justice, there is very little change at all. It is amazing to see how often a paragraph ends with the words – will remain reserved. In this case all of pensions and effectively all of welfare are to remain reserved matters. The Scottish Parliament will have new powers to create new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility. However these can only be at the margins as any monies to be spent will need to be raised by the Scottish government. Which is only right and proper, but the report contains virtually nothing in the way of substantive additional revenue raising powers.

Which leads nicely on to the final pillar – financial responsibility. While a lot of noise will be made about the recommendations in this area, they amount to little more than re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. The Scottish Parliament will gain the power to set the rates and thresholds for personal income tax and the first 10% of the standard rate of VAT will be assigned to Scotland. This is all fine and dandy, but in return the current block grant assigned to Scotland will be reduced by exactly the same amount. We gain no say or control over the rates of VAT. While income tax is important it is only one of many, many taxes available to governments and one which will prove in practice, difficult to change from the rates set by Westminster. Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK explains here, why devolving income tax is the worst possible solution for everyone. All the other revenue sources remain reserved.

So, all in all, the recommendations are pretty timid and completely fail to address the key issue facing the UK as a whole, namely the over centralisation of power. Political power will remain concentrated at Westminster, while economic power will remain concentrated in London. Not much was expected from the Smith Commission and in this respect it has not disappointed.

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Scottish politics – the waiting game?

I have that this feeling that we are going through a very strange phase in relation to politics in Scotland. There is still plenty of activity going on, but it strikes me that there is as yet not a lot of substance behind all this activity. This is not a criticism, it takes time for all of us to adjust to the post referendum situation. And the unexpected paradox that it is the losing side, the pro-independence groups and political parties, that is the most energised and enthusiastic. It is great to see so many of our fellow citizens – well over a hundred thousand by now – join a political party. I am one of them, and the Scottish Greens now have one more awkward member to deal with!

It is not just the pro-indy political parties that have been re-energised by this post referendum surge. Many, possibly most, of the main pro-indy campaign groups have decided to continue their work. And they have seen an increase in members or activists. Witness the sell outs for Women for Indy and the most recent, the incredible 3,000 people who attended RIC’s latest jamboree in Glasgow. All the more remarkable in that this conference was held at the same time and almost in the same place as Nicola managed to attract 12,000 people to her final tour event!

At the local level there has been, if anything, an even greater outburst of activity. All kinds of groups, some longstanding and others relatively new, have been organising public meetings, conferences and conventions. More are already planned for next year.

Even the media it seems will not remain unscathed by this post referendum surge. The main pro-indy websites – Bella, Newsnet, National Collective, Wings etc – have all decided to not just continue, but in most cases to expand. This week we have even seen the emergence of a pro-indy newspaper – the National – albeit on a one week trial run. The times they are a changing! Or, have they already changed?

All this activity is great and most welcomed, and I am pleased to play my very small part in this movement. However activity on its own will not be enough. Sooner or later more will be needed. Before the 18th September, we could all focus on the one aim of winning a Yes vote. Details could be left a bit vague as the whole point of independence is that it will be for the people who live in Scotland to have the final democratic say on policies.

This is now no longer the case. While independence will remain the key aim for most of us, a referendum is now off the agenda, for at least a few years anyway. Policy will now be what matters. And there are plenty of issues demanding attention. Constitutional issues will still remain, as we await with baited breadth the proposals from the Smith Commission on how to strengthen the powers of the Scottish Parliament within the UK. As ever the economy will be the prime focus for most people. However this time around social justice is likely to become just as important an issue. Or perhaps the key issue will become how to manage the economy in a way that ensures social justice as an equally important outcome. There will of course be other issues that are likely to become important – fracking, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and its potentially devastating consequences for public services, such as the NHS, the EU and immigration to name but a few.

In all these cases the public will want to hear what the various parties and campaign groups have to say. In particular they will want detailed proposals which specify what action needs to be taken. Wish lists and demands are unlikely to suffice for much longer. And this is where things could become very interesting. With Nicola now formally installed as our new First Minister – congratulations and best wishes to her – and her new cabinet in office, we can expect some more details from the SNP as to what their proposals are. The Greens already have proposals in the public domain. The same should soon happen with the Labour party, once they have decided who they want as their leader and deputy. Though how much real scope for decision making they have remains unanswered.

The various campaigning groups will soon have to decide how far they want to go down the route of detailed proposals. A start was made at the RIC conference with their so called People’s Vow. Not that I am a fan of vows of any kind, at least not in current times. While the principles are admirable, the vow remains full of demands and promises to campaign, to demonstrate and to oppose this and that. The only positive item I could see was the commitment to prepare a people’s budget. It will be interesting to see who gets to write this “people’s” budget, and how far it goes beyond a list of demands.

Another Scotland is possible is the key message of RIC. This needs to go beyond a slogan and become a reality by detailing what needs to change and how these changes can be made and paid for. We need to put forward a vision of this other Scotland as a series of concrete examples of what will be different and how it can happen. And we need to take this to the people of Scotland in their communities and engage with them and convince them that this other Scotland is both worth striving for and achievable. The waiting time will soon be over.

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