Monthly Archives: June 2017

Common Weal’s Renewal Proposals

CommonWeal has entered the post election fray by publishing a collection of proposals, Renew, which it wants the Scottish government to adopt. The rationale for this is that the election showed “some clear signs of discontent about the risk of stagnation and a perceived lack of ambition.”

While the authors no doubt want to be helpful, I am not so sure that this is the way to go about it. Firstly their stated reason – “some signs of discontent” – does not warrant such a drastic change of direction on part of the government. It is important to remember that this was a UK election and that just over a year ago the SNP won the largest number of seats and votes in the Scottish election. To ditch that manifesto on the basis of “some signs of discontent”, during another election for another parliament would seem to be a sign of panic and not renewal.

Secondly as the report acknowledges, “Common Weal has been publishing policy papers on domestic policy throughout this parliament”. Why should the Scottish government suddenly adopt this particular collection of six policies now? Publishing them now just seems to be a reckless publicity stunt by Common Weal. Major changes of direction in a democracy should come about as a result of public debate and voting in an election. Not at the behest of a think tank, however illustrious.

The six collections of polices seem a bit of a mishmash and very few can be implemented in the near future. The creation of a National Investment Bank (NIB) for example will take some time to become a reality and will require significant funding from the Scottish budget. The main difficulty though, in setting up a NIB is that it will require the consent of the UK Treasury to changes in the way the UK measures public debt and to changes in the budgetary rules for the Scottish government. Both of which may happen or may not. But the fact that the creation of a NIB for Scotland depends on UK government approval does demonstrate the extent to which Scottish government initiatives are constrained by our membership of the UK.

This also applies to the proposals on housing. The extra funding for housebuilding is to come from the newly established NIB. But as noted if this does not get UK government agreement to work in the way Common Weal want, these additional funds will not be available.

Changes to our democracy is high on Common Weal’s agenda. However their priorities for action amount to – setting up two commissions. One to design a new system of local democracy and the other to investigate the idea of creating a second ‘Citizen’s Chamber’ of the Scottish Parliament. Wow, this will have them jumping for joy up and down the country! Why do we need either commission? The report makes lots of assertions but nothing in the way of evidence that either would improve decision making in Scotland nor that either is wanted by more than a handful of policy wonks.

When it comes to local tax reform the report doesn’t mercifully want another commission, but just wants the government to adopt Common Weal’s proposals for replacing Council Tax with a property and land tax. A lot of merit in these proposals. Just a pity that they were not supported by the electorate last year.

The report includes a very strange section which isn’t about big initiatives, but rather about Sending the right signals. These signals are to cover land reform, fracking, education and the arts. Why these four and not others is nowhere explained. The recommendation on arts is almost a joke. The best that Common Weal can come up with is that, “the Scottish government should consider how investing in arts can create a sense of a confident Scotland.” Wow, another one to get them rocking in the aisles!

The serious bit in this section concerns education. Here the report calls for the government to downgrade or shelve its reforms and calls for a full review of the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence. So the current reforms are to stop and be replaced by ????? What is to happen with the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence while the full review is undertaken? Is the implementation to be halted? For how long? The report also calls for considerable additional money to be spent on teachers, teaching assistants, libraries and IT support, without any indication of where this money is to come from.

The proposal to fund extra childcare by scrapping the planned reduction in Air Passenger Duty is one of the few practical recommendations that could be implemented without delay. The same cannot be said of most of the others.

All in all I remain perplexed as to what Common Weal hope to achieve by publishing this report. For a democratically elected government to make so many radical changes to its manifesto just one year into its term of office, does not strike me as good governance. To do so at the behest of an unelected think tank would be just absurd and about as undemocratic as one can imagine.

Changes of the kind proposed by Common Weal, some of which I agree with, need to be properly debated and scrutinised in the public sphere and then voted on in a general election. For Common Weal to suggest otherwise is an affront to democracy.

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Independence is not a product

Robin McAlpine has another very good and interesting article on Common Space. Entitled What the indy movement needs to do next, it is well worth reading. His piece outlines the recent work of the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC).

I am in agreement with much of what he writes, in particular the need for a non-party campaign, voter research, a solid messaging and targeting strategy and employing professionals who can help us get the job done.

However he loses me when he writes the following: “There is one final thing that needs to be done to get ready to campaign – you need to get your product finished. You can market a prototype car only for so long. Eventually you need to have finished cars ready for sale.

We can’t keep trying to sell a half-finished pitch for independence. We need to decide what the answers to the big questions are – currency, pensions and all the rest.”

I am sorry, but for me at least, independence is not a product. It is most certainly not like a car, which you can exchange every year or so. Independence is more of an idea and a state. You are either independent or you are not. Independence at its most basic is about the power to choose. In the case of Scotland it means that decisions about the future of the country will be taken by the people who live here. Nothing more.

I am also suspicious of this notion that before a referendum we must have decided what the answers to the big questions are. Whether it is pensions, currency, or whatever. Why? When the whole point of independence is that it will the voters in Scotland who will get to decide the answers to all these and other questions.

I rather think that Robin is missing the key point here. When people raise concerns about pensions, currency, social security or whatever in and independent Scotland their prime concern is, will an independent Scotland be able to afford these things? Whatever answer SIC come up with about pensions, Unionists will always say that an independent Scotland will be too poor to afford it.

As I see it there two groups who continue to oppose independence. The first is made up of those for whom the UK is the prime and most important framework for decision making. They may be portrayed as British nationalists, but whatever their motivation, they are unlikely to convert to supporting Scottish independence.

The other group is made up of people who have no great attachment to the UK, are attracted by the democratic case for independence, but remain unconvinced by the economic case for independence. They may focus on one aspect of the economy, pensions for example, but the answer has to be to convince them that an independent Scotland has the necessary resources – physical, natural and human – to be a successful and stable economy. It is this group that is most likely to be persuaded to vote Yes in a future referendum.

This is what I would like SIC to be doing more work on. Providing all of us with simple, easy to understand and easy to share evidence of the fundamental underlying strengths of Scotland. It is not enough to assert, as we did last time, that an independent Scotland would be a rich country. This time we need to able to evidence and illustrate it. This would be fine task for the researchers and professionals that SIC want to hire on our behalf.

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Initial reflections on the General Election

Well that was a bit of a surprise, which caught nearly everyone out. Unlike 2015 this time we do have a hung parliament, just. A well deserved mess for May and the Tories. No more strong and stable, just a shaky deal which relies on the DUP for any kind of majority.

The results in Scotland were also unexpected, at least in degree. Everyone expected the SNP to lose seats and the Tories to win some. But the extent of the changes caught most people out. What factors lie behind the voting in Scotland? Here are a few initial thoughts.

  1. The Corbyn bounce was real and Labour secured one of their best ever results, particularly in terms of their share of the popular vote in England. This was around 40%. The party did not do so well in Scotland, with hardly any increase in their vote. However the party did win six seats. Almost certainly as a result of Corbyn’s appeal to younger and radical voters. Many of whom support Scottish independence, but like the idea of a Corbyn government at Westminster.
  2. Though Brexit did not feature prominently in the debates during the campaign, it was undoubtedly a significant factor for many voters. Especially in those parts of the country where the leave vote was relatively strong – in the north east for example. As the only party to campaign on a hard Brexit platform, the Tories were the best placed to sweep up those leave voters for whom Brexit was the key issue.
  3. In Scotland independence and a second indyref was one of the dominant issues in the campaign. While opposition to indyref2 took most of the headlines, the real factor was opposition to independence itself. In practice this amounted to opposition to the SNP. All three Unionist parties co-operated on this. There was clearly an informal Unionist pact among Labour, the LibDems and the Tories. They vied among each other as to who was best placed to defeat the SNP. And quite effective it was too. Which makes the SNP success in holding on to 35 seats even more amazing.
  4. Though this was a UK election, most of the debates and campaigning in Scotland was about devolved issues. Education and the NHS came up in programmes again and again. Did this also happen in Wales?  Which is a bit strange as the outcome of a UK election has no practical bearing on what happens in the Scottish Parliament. The relentless focus on devolved issues was of course a deliberate tactic of the three Unionist parties. It clearly put the SNP, as the government in Scotland, on the defensive. This meant that the abysmal failures of the Tory government at Westminster – on the economy, defence, no Brexit plan etc – got pretty much a free pass. As with the independence issue we had the three Unionist parties all trying to make the election about the SNP and not about the Tory government at Westminster. In this of course they were ably assisted by the media, including the BBC.
  5. An intriguing question is why did the LibDems and Labour agree to this informal pact with the Tories. I could understand this if it was a Holyrood election, after all the SNP is the government and deserve rigorous scrutiny. But this was not a Scottish election, but a UK one. I can also see why the Tories would want to focus on the SNP as they would have had a harder time if they had had to spend more time defending the record of the Tory government in London. But what was in it for the LibDems and Labour?
  6. As regards the LibDems it may be that they realised that the Tories were going to win big in England and therefore they would have no influence at Westminster. So why not just attack the SNP and try and win back a few seats from them. If the Tories were going to be returned with an increased majority anyway, what difference would it make if the Tories also made gains in Scotland.
  7. In the case of Labour this may also have been what motivated them to indulge in an informal anti SNP pact. However if true it may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Labour in Scotland. If, as seems likely, they did not believe in a Corbyn victory, that does not augur well for the future relations between Scottish Labour and the UK party. What is potentially worse may be the dawning realisation that if the SNP had held on to even six more seats then the prospect of a Labour minority government would be a reality.  If only Labour in Scotland had relentlessly exposed their real enemy, the Tories, and campaigned with a stop the Tories message!
  8. Returning to the UK results, it is worth remembering that these elections are conducted with the First Past the Post system (FPTP). This system is notoriously undemocratic and rarely, if ever, accurately reflects the votes cast. It was no different this time around, with both winners and losers. The winners were the Tories, DUP and SNP.  The Tories benefitted the most with fully 6.4% more seats than their share of the vote, which was only 42.4%. Yet they ended up with 48.4% of the seats. The SNP and DUP benefitted to a much lesser extent. The losers from FPTP were the LibDems, Greens and UKIP. The LibDems suffered the most, their 7.4% of the vote returning only 1.8% of the seats. Interesting to note that for both Labour and Plaid Cymru their share of seats matches almost exactly their share of the vote. FPTP can work in strange ways.

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