Category Archives: UK

Lots of Bombs, but not much Love

In the aftermath of the referendum campaign the real views of English Unionists pretty quickly began to emerge. David Cameron could hardly wait for the result to indulge in a bit of Scots bashing with his barely thought through wish for English votes for English laws, the aptly called EVEL. More of a proposal to turn MPs from Scotland into second class citizens than anything else. That little bit of indulgence is nothing compared to the barrage of anti Scottish hysteria which seems to have gripped almost everyone in the English media.  See here for a glimpse into this mindset, curtesy of Wings over Scotland. The lovebombing from before the referendum has disappeared completely, to be replaced by rather nasty hate bombs.

It is truly remarkable that for a mixture of short term gain and a tribal hatred of the SNP most Unionists are pursuing an approach which can only damage what they profess to hold most dear. What is really surprising is that these Unionists seem to be blissfully unaware of the potential damage they are doing to their beloved UK. Only a few distressed Unionist such as Alex Massie have remained clear headed enough to see the big picture.

This is one in which most Unionist have either crossed, or have come close to crossing the line between opposing the influence of the SNP and rejecting the right of any MP from Scotland to influence the government of the UK. This is particularly dangerous territory for Labour. It is perfectly understandable, if utterly stupid from a pro UK perspective, for the Tories to reject outright any involvement of the SNP in a UK government. They and everyone else knows that the SNP will not have anything to do with supporting a Tory government. So it is a pretty cheap stunt on the part of the Tories to call for Labour to also reject outright any deal with the SNP. The Tories have nothing but David Mundell to lose in Scotland, and his loss is most unlikely to have any effect on the prospects of the Tories remaining in government.

There is though far more at stake for Labour. Even if the party does as badly as some of the predictions, it will remain a major party in Scotland and will hope prosper once again, not just at Holyrood but also at Westminster. Here is the rub though. If Labour were to reject now any kind of deal with the SNP after May, they run the risk that at future UK elections, English Unionists will question why Scottish Labour MPs should get any say in a UK government.  If SNP MPs can be excluded, why not all Scottish MPs?

The recent intervention by Alan Johnston was also misjudged. He wants to rule out a deal with the SNP, not apparently because they are Scottish, but on the grounds that they would want the removal of Trident as part of any deal. However many Scottish Labour MPs also support the removal of Trident. Are they too to be cast out from any deal? What about any English or Welsh Labour MP who also supports the removal of Trident? Are they to be excluded from the formation of a Labour government? This is pretty much inconceivable. Which just exposes that Alan Johnston’s real objection is to MPs from Scotland having any kind of influence on a future UK government. His comments are doubly dangerous for Labour. They confirm that Labour is a pro Trident party, a position that is at odds with most of the potential voters that Labour has to win back. By opposing any role for the SNP in a UK government he is effectively ruling out for the future, any role in a UK government for any MP from Scotland.

Whatever the result of the election in May, the long term effects of this hate bombing of Scotland can only persuade even more Scots that next time, and there will be a next time, the only vote is Yes.

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The English Question

As the UK general election inches ever closer, the more feverish becomes the media’s outpourings. All eyes it seems are on Scotland and the implications of the projected SNP surge for coalition building at Westminster. What however seems to go unmentioned is the consequences of the results in England. Put simply, do future UK governments need to have an overall majority in England? This has always been the norm up till now, and pre devolution did not really matter much anyway. It does now, as can be seen from all the furore over the various attempts to introduce some way to ensure that only English votes determine English laws – EVEL to its friends and foes. The problem at heart is of course the lopsided nature of the current devolution settlement with parliaments or assemblies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but nothing for England. Which means that the UK government is also, for all devolved matters, the government of England. Which in turn begs the question, do UK governments need to have an overall majority in England in order to govern in England? Another way to put it would be to ask for how long would the majority in England tolerate “their” government being dependent on Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish votes?

This is an English Question that is possibly even more important than any Scottish Question. It is particularly relevant right now as just about all current opinion polls indicate that it will very difficult, if not impossible, for either Labour or the Tories to form a government with an overall majority in both England and the whole of the UK. The difficulty is different for our two main UK parties. The Tories are likely to emerge with an overall majority in England, but will find it very difficult to construct a stable majority in the UK as a whole. While for Labour their problem is the opposite – they are most likely to be in a minority in England, but find it possible to form a majority across the UK.

In England the magic number is 267, the number of seats that ensure an overall majority. The Tories currently have 294 of these seats and even with any losses in May are still likely to emerge with 267 or more MPs from England. This is in large part due to the party’s continuing unpopularity in Scotland and Wales. With only one MP from Scotland and merely eight from Wales, the Tories are effectively already an English party. Even if, against all the odds, the party was to increase its representation in Scotland and Wales, it is most unlikely to be by much. Let us assume, for the purpose of illustration, that the Tories emerge with a total of 13 MPs from Wales and Scotland. That means that with a total of as low as 280 MPs, the party would still command an overall majority in England. Of course if, as expected they do not make any progress in Scotland and Wales, then 275 MPs in total could be sufficient to ensure an overall majority in England.

For Labour, it is looking very grim in England. Currently the party has 191 English MPs and while this number is likely in increase considerably, it unlikely to increase enough to ensure an overall majority in England. This of course is partly due to the party’s strength in Wales and Scotland. While the SNP look like eroding Labour’s Scottish bastion, they may not be quite as successful as the latest polls indicate. Which paradoxically is bad news for Labour in England. By way of illustration, let us assume that Labour in Scotland hold on to 11 seats, retain their current 28 seats in Wales and win a total of 300 MPs. Take away the 39 non English MPs and Labour are left with just 261 seats in England, still a minority. If Labour were to win 300 seats across the UK, their best chance of securing an overall majority in England would be for the SNP to win just about everything in Scotland. If there are only two Labour MPs from Scotland, Labour would then have a comfortable overall majority of seats in England. What this little illustration shows, is that it is more important for Labour to do better in England than in Scotland.

For the UK as a whole, the magic number is 326 or 323, if you assume that Sinn Fein continue to not turn up at Westminster. This is where the projected collapse of the LibDems complicates matters greatly, or adds to the excitement if you prefer. With around 20+ MPs, it is most unlikely that they will be in a position to ensure an overall majority for either Labour or the Tories. Only if one of the large parties win 300 or more seats will the LibDems on their own come into play. Currently most polls show neither Labour nor the Tories getting much above 290, if even that number. Again to illustrate the options, let us take 290 as the figure for both the Tories and Labour. Both then need to find another 36 MPs in order to secure a minimum overall majority.

It is somewhat simpler for the Tories in that they are likely to have an overall majority in England and as the SNP have ruled out any deal, their options are reduced. The only viable option would seem to be a tripartite coalition with the LibDems and the DUP from Northern Ireland. That might just take them over the winning line, but just as likely might leave them a few seats short. Support from any UKIP MPs might help, but on the other hand might put the LibDems off. With 290 MPs this coalition is possible, but with anything less, say just 285 MPs, the Tories would find it almost impossible to lead the next government.

When it comes to Labour, their first problem will probably be to secure an overall majority in England, which almost certainly will mean reaching an agreement with the LibDems. However that would still leave a projected Lab/LibDem coalition around 12 or so seats short of an overall majority. As with the Tories a deal with the DUP would not be enough. The other Northern Irish MPs – the SDLP for example – might be sufficient, but their inclusion might create problems for the DUP. At the margins any Green MPs might help, but again it is unlikely they would want to be involved in a formal coalition. For Labour the SNP are likely to provide enough votes on their own to form a coalition, but without the LibDems Labour would remain a minority in England. A Labour/LibDem/SNP coalition would provide the most stable outcome in terms of numbers, but is probably the most unlikely, given both Labour and LibDem hostility to the SNP.

All the above, and most of the media commentary is base on the assumption that the next government needs to have an overall majority at Westminster. However minority government is not uncommon in many countries and was successful in Scotland from 2007-2011. This is where perhaps the SNP has its clearest role in the next parliament. Abstention by the SNP on a confidence motion would then be crucial in who does get to lead the next UK government. The SNP would remain free to vote against Trident and would not need to actually vote for any of the alternatives. The question then would be what price would the others be willing to pay for SNP abstention?

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Yes and No are not over

Gerry Hassan has an interesting article for the Scottish Left Project entitled Message to the Messengers: What do we do after Yes? In it he lists and comments on some of the myths of the indyref which he claims are still held on to by some and which need dispelling. It is an interesting piece, but not very illuminating, which you can read in full here. The Wilderness of Peace blog has done an excellent job of refuting Hassan’s many points, and you can read this riposte here.

I want to pick up on one of Gerry Hassan’s so-called myths which needs dispelling. According to Mr Hassan, Yes and No are over. They are not the future. There is no future in them. They belong to the past – and died on September 18th. The Yes/No binary has to be lost to allow the emergent new voices, spaces and movements which came forth in the referendum to grow, be set free, and find a place to flourish which is not dependent or related to the independence referendum.

Now, strictly speaking this is not really a myth. There is a Yes/No binary, it is just that Mr Hassan wants us all to leave it behind and let it die. Now this is exactly what Unionists have been calling for ever since the referendum. So it is a bit surprising to read Gerry Hassan endorsing this Unionist call. Particularly as he gives no convincing reason as to why this should happen. The various emergent new voices which came forth during the referendum all seem to be doing a very fine job of growing and finding places to flourish. It is a pity that Mr Hassan did not seem to think fit to ask any of these new voices for their opinion on the relevance of the Yes/No divide. As far as I can make out, they all seem to be quite explicit on which side of the divide they lie.

For,contrary to Mr Hassan the Yes/No binary is still relevant. More so than ever I would argue. Though the Unionists won the referendum it was never made clear just what kind of UK we were asked to endorse. This is not just about the infamous Vow, which came very late in the day. Throughout the campaign, Unionists of all sorts made it crystal clear that a No vote was not a vote for no change. It was just that their assorted promises were extremely vague.

We still do not know what kind of Union will emerge post referendum. In this respect the Smith Commission has done Unionists no favours at all. Their proposals are underwhelming for most Scots, while the mere mention of additional powers for Scotland seems to arouse some rather unedifying responses from most English MPs. Not to mention that the Smith proposals say nothing about Wales or Northern Ireland.

The point that Mr Hassan seems to have missed is that for the time being the Yes/No divide is as much about genuine constitutional change for the whole of the UK. Can the UK transform itself into a federal or near federal state? One that gives proper recognition to all the component nations that make up the UK. One that at long, long last begins to transfer power, both political and economic, away from London to the rest of the UK.

Those in the No camp are still, judging by their contributions to the Smith Commission unwilling to even contemplate such a transformation of the UK. So Yes and No remains an accurate and useful dividing line. While most of us on the Yes side will continue to put forward the case for independence, in the meantime we are more than willing to join forces with others across the UK in arguing for genuine constitutional change. The UK state in its current form needs to be broken up and reconstituted. You are either in favour of this transformation or not – Yes or No?

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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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TV Broadcasters fail the UK yet again

The main London based TV broadcasters have recently published their joint proposals for a series of leaders’ debates during the 2015 general election campaign. For details see here. In doing so they have once again demonstrated just how London centred they remain. The Greens have one MP, elected in 2010, and a respectable voting record in European elections, yet remain almost invisible to the mainstream media. Until last week UKIP had no MP at Westminster, and their current one is a defector from the Tory party. Yet UKIP and Nigel Farage in particular have become the darlings of the London media, including the broadcasters. Presumably because their reactionary anti immigrant, anti EU message suits the media barons more than the progressive polices of the Greens. The proposals for TV debates also demonstrate just how out of touch the broadcasters are with what is happening across the UK. For their focus is not reflective in any way with what is happening in many parts of England, never mind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet we are supposed to be a United Kingdom. This is a funny way of showing how we are all better together. If we are to have TV debates featuring the leaders of political parties, and it looks like we will, there needs to be a sound basis for deciding who gets to appear in these debates. We should most definitely not leave this key decision to the broadcasters alone.

A Prime Ministerial debate?

There is some, though a very limited, rational for holding a debate among the candidates who could become Prime Minister, without relying on the support of other parties. Though of course this would only involve David Cameron and Ed Milliband. Everyone recognises that only Labour or the Tories can win an outright majority of seats on their own. However this is an increasingly unlikely outcome. It did not happen in 2010 and just about all polls indicate the most likely outcome in May 2015 is another “hung” parliament, with no overall majority for either party. So though in theory this option has some basis to it, the reality is that most people would rightly reject it. The UK is sufficiently beyond two party politics for broadcasters to impose a return to those bygone days on the rest of us.

Debates involving the leaders of all political parties?

This is the one option that has so far never been considered by our broadcasters. No doubt difficult to organise and to work out a format that allows all the participants to respond to questions. Yet this is the only option that does justice to all parties and most important of all, the only option which serves the purpose of informing the electorate, which should be the key, indeed sole purpose of any debate.

The justification for involving all parties is that any party, however small, may have an important, possibly decisive, role to play in who does become Prime Minister. As the most likely outcome of the May 2015 election is that no party has an overall majority of MPs, then all kinds of coalitions, formal or informal may become possible. To take just one example, that of Plaid Cymru. Though there is no way that Plaid Cymru can become the party of government at Westminster, the votes of their MPs could in some circumstances be decisive in building a stable coalition or in supporting a minority government. It is therefore important that the voters in the rest of the country know not just what Plaid Cymru stand for, but how the other parties, in particular Labour and the Tories, would respond to any overtures from Plaid. This can only be done through some kind of open and public engagement among the parties.

Spare a thought for the broadcasters

There is it seems to me no simple way to accommodate needs and demands of all the various interested parties, from the broadcasters themselves, the political parties to the most important of all, the poor bloody voter. The reason for this is quite simple – the increasing fragmentation of politics in the UK. This can be seen firstly in the slow, but seemingly irreversible decline of both Labour and the Tory party. In counter part to this decline there is the rise of national parties in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Combined, these trends may mean there is no longer in any UK wide politics in any meaningful sense. In England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland the key issues are often different and the political parties are often different. Just glad I am not a broadcaster, though they need to come up with something much much better than their current proposals.

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Engaging with the Smith Commission

Now that the referendum is well and truly over, the only show in town is the Smith Commission. This is the UK government’s way of taking forward the famous or infamous Vow made by the leaders of the three Unionist parties at Westminster. A commission to be headed by a member of the House of Lords. All very typically British. Yet, the good Lord Smith has been welcomed by the SNP and others in the pro-independence movement. Despite the top down nature of the work of the Commission there is scope for members of the public to contribute, Have your say – Submitting ideas, views and proposals to the Commission, which you can access here. We should all be encouraging as many people as possible to submit their views on what further powers they think should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament.

There is a restriction however on what the Commission will consider. As an initiative of the UK government, the Commission has been asked to come up with recommendations for further devolution of powers to strengthen the Scottish Parliament within the UK. This is hardly surprising and there is no point in bemoaning this. While independence is off the table, there remains a great deal of scope to challenge the current constitutional set up of the UK. In point of fact the good Lord positively invites us to do so. In the Guidelines that the Commission has published there is a list of key questions for people to consider when making a submission. One is, What is your assessment of the current situation? This seems to me to be an open invitation to point out the weaknesses and failures inherent in the current devolution settlement. Below is my initial attempt at this analysis.

Despite the creation of the three devolved parliaments/assemblies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK remains a very centralised state. As has been noted many times, power devolved is power retained. The current situation is also, in part because of this centralisation of power, and in part due to the rather haphazard and ad hoc way in which devolution had developed, a very unstable settlement. This is the case both in relation to devolved and non devolved powers.

The current situation in relation to devolved powers

1. Constitutional issues
As all three devolved parliaments/assemblies are the result of Acts of the UK Parliament, they can all be amended or even abolished by another Act of the UK Parliament. While this extreme, abolition, may be regarded as unlikely, its possibility is a clear demonstration of the fact that final power remains with Westminster. It is also the case that only the UK Parliament can legislate changes to the current settlements. Whatever consensus there may be in Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland for additional powers, the final say still depends on the approval of Westminster.

This combination of power retained and uncertainty has been compounded by the lack of a corresponding devolution settlement for England. Thus Westminster remains a most confusing miss mash of powers and responsibilities. The UK Parliament and government exercises power over at least four discrete geographical areas: 1. for the whole of the UK e.g. defence and foreign affairs, 2, sometimes for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 3, sometimes for England and Wales, and 4. sometimes just for England. In addition the UK Parliament effectively acts as the government of Scotland when it has sole power to set the level of the block grant for the Scottish Parliament. The UK Parliaments acts in a similar way as the government of Wales and the government of Northern Ireland when it sets their block grants.

This lack of clarity about the precise role and powers of Westminster can also be seen in the difficulties that all UK parties have had in relation to English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). That EVEL has become an issue is itself a direct consequence of the failure to create a devolved English Parliament.

2. Finance
The concentration of powers at Westminster also applies to how the three devolved parliaments/assemblies are financed. The Scottish Parliament, like the other two devolved administrations, has operational and policy making powers over the various devolved areas – education, the NHS etc. However the Scottish Parliament has only limited powers over its revenues. That this is due to change in 2016, with the implementation of the latest changes decided at Westminster is clear evidence that the current situation regarding finances is unsatisfactory. Further evidence of this is that all three UK parties made the devolution of further revenue raising powers to the Scottish Parliament a key part of their campaign during the recent referendum.

The prime reason for this dissatisfaction with the current situation is that reliance on another body for finance means that the Scottish Parliament is not fully in control of all aspects of the devolved matters. Even with the planned changes for 2016 and the published proposals from the UK parties for further tax raising powers Westminster will remain in control of most of the Scottish Parliament’s budget.

This is a matter of concern both in terms of democracy and good governance. That a Westminster government with little or no mandate over devolved matters has the power to alter the block grant is profoundly undemocratic. The practice of good governance is enhanced when the body that has legislative powers for policy and spending also has the responsibility and powers to raise the monies to be spent. The lack of this key power over revenues is a disincentive to good governance and a continuing source of friction between the devolved parliaments/assemblies and Westminster.

The current situation in relation to non devolved powers

The history of devolution in the UK is one of a succession of ad hoc decisions by the UK parliament. Beginning with the demand for Home Rule for Ireland. A demand which Westminster failed to respond to adequately. In each successive case Westminster has re-acted to pressure from one or other of the three peripheral nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As the history of each of these nations within the UK has been different, the Westminster response has also been different. In the case of Scotland this meant that devolution was essentially limited to giving the Scottish Parliament control over the matters that already had administrative devolution. At no stage in this process has there been any serious attempt by Westminster to to develop a coherent constitutional settlement for the whole of the UK. Such an exercise would inevitably include considering the powers that remain the exclusive preserve of Westminster. This is further confirmation that the UK remains a very centralised state when it comes to the exercise of power. To secure a stable and lasting devolution settlement for all of the UK will require all parties to re-examine the range of reserved powers, to determine which can be devolved.

This over centralisation of power at Westminster has had serious economic consequences for all parts of the UK. All UK governments have found it very hard, if not impossible, to govern in the interests of all parts of the UK. The latest recession – the deepest and longest lasting in modern times – is but the most recent example of this. The south east of England, including London seems to be the area that has most benefitted from Westminster policies. London and its environs seems to inevitably dominate the policies of all UK governments. With little in the way of economic and social levers available to other parts of the country this has resulted in a very uneven and unequal economy.

Conclusion

The UK still suffers from an over centralisation of power. The establishment of parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has alleviated this over centralisation, though only in part. Westminster remains the supreme and in many cases the only source of power. The failure to find a devolution settlement for England leaves the current situation in a state of seemingly permanent flux. The failure to give the devolved parliaments/assemblies sufficient tax raising powers to cover their spending means there remains a lack of democratic accountability at the heart of the current devolution situation.

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Nova Scotia – a model for Devo Max ?

With independence off the table for the medium term future,Yes supporters need to turn our attention to Devo Max. This is where the real battleground will lie in the short term – up to and possibly beyond the 2015 UK general election. The Unionists made solemn vows that a No vote would lead to greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. Some even talked about Home Rule and a Federal Britain. We must hold them to account on this.

Put forward a credible model now

However we must do more than just sit back and wait for the UK government to come up with something. This would be a great mistake. Whatever Westminster comes up with, however little and insignificant it amounts to, they and their friends in the media will present it as wonderful, powerful and unprecedented. If we are to counter this we cannot wait and then complain. We need to get in our counter proposals now. The key here is that it is the No voters that the Unionists need to convince with their offer. We still want independence but we are, let us not forget, the minority, so our views are of little import to the UK government. We need to get out into the public domain examples of what devolution of real powers looks like. This way all of us, including No voters will have a meaningful marker against which to judge the UK government’s offer.

Nova Scotia as a working model of Devo Max

There are many possibilities for Devo Max all the way to full fiscal autonomy. But as long as they remain theoretical, academic options, they are not likely to capture the interest or the imagination of the general public. Especially No voters. Instead I suggest that we put forward real life examples from other countries. I would propose the Canadian system as a good example to recommend. I have chosen Nova Scotia to illustrate this for obvious reasons, though the basics apply to all Canadian provinces. This has the advantage that most people in Scotland and the rest of the UK will be pretty familiar with Canada. Not the details of course, but Canada as a friendly, successful and stable country. One that used to be part of the British Empire to boot. This makes it that bit harder for Unionists to reject outright the Canadian system. If it works for Nova Scotia and for Canada why not for Scotland and the UK?

What powers does Nova Scotia have?

Very substantial powers is the short answer. The following brief summary is taken from the Nova Scotia Finance and Treasury Board. You can access the page here. Basically Nova Scotia raises revenues from; income tax, corporate tax, sales tax, taxes on petrol, user fees and royalties from offshore petroleum production activities.

In the case of income tax, corporate tax and sales tax, both the federal and provincial government set their own rates. The Harmonized Sales Tax for example in Nova Scotia is 15% – a federal portion (5%) and a provincial portion (10%). It is also interesting to note that most taxes in Nova Scotia are collected and administered by the Canada Revenue Agency. So there is no need for unnecessary duplication of beaurocracy.

Just to be clear, we do not need to become advocates for any particular form of devolution. But I do believe that we need to do all we can to ensure that the wider public is aware of how extensive devolution is in other successful countries. Canada is just one example. It does have a nice ring to it though. Why should Scotland not have the same economic powers as Nova Scotia?

 

 

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Why do they want us to stay?

It is always a wonderful sight to behold – the British establishment in one of its periodic bouts of panic. And none surely come greater than the current one. The sight of Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Milliband downing tools at Westminster to hurry north, separately, mind you, to save the union is one that will become a classic.

A couple of opinion polls show the referendum on a a knife’s edge and all hell breaks loose in London. Panic stations does not do justice to the disarray among our Unionist friends. Promises and timetables appear all over the place, as if this was a referendum on a new railway system. On even a cursory glance these so called promises turn out to be nothing more than cauld kale. Though journalists in London seem prepared to take it all at face value. Which just confirms how out of touch they are with developments in Scotland.

The only really interesting question is why? Why is the British establishment so determined to keep Scotland in the UK? They say they love us, but the reality of the No campaign gives the lie to this claim. The one constant message from Unionists is that an independent Scotland would quickly become a basket case. Kicked out of the EU, denied NATO membership, oil revenues soon to disappear, without a currency and armed guards on the border. According to Better Together it is only the goodwill and financial subsidies from England which keep Scotland afloat. Yet they are so, so desperate for us to stay. It does not make any sense.

Simon Heffer has a wonderfully vitriolic anti Scottish rant in the English edition of the Daily Mail. In it he pulls no punches in his disdain towards Scotland, and quite openly calls for us to shove off. In its Scottish edition the Mail’s headline is Cameron’s plea for us to stay. You could hardly make it up. The schozofrenia at the Mail is just the most visible sign of the dilemma which is destroying the No campaign. Is Scotland a burden or an asset?

Simon Heffer’s fact free rant is squarely based on the subsidy Jock theory of “the most successful union in history”. He even manages to come up with a figure for this. Apparently we Scots get subsidised to the tune of nearly £18 bn per year by our oh so generous friends in England. I guess it is just England which provides this largesse, as I doubt even Simon Heffer believes that the Welsh and the Northern Irish generate this kind of surplus. However even if we dismiss Mr Heffer as a bit of a buffoon, the official No campaign is happy a to peddle this notion that Scotland is subsidised by England. How else can we explain their constant refrain that an independent Scotland would face a gaping hole of £6bn In our budget? Presumably we only survive at the moment due to the English kindly picking up this tab.

So once again we have this conundrum – if we are a burden to England, why are its leaders so determined to keep us? £6bn per year is a tidy sum, even for rUK. It will in practice be even higher. According to the No campaign when Scotland becomes independent we will lose many of our largest companies,including the banks and other financial services providers. They will relocate to rUK, thus providing another tidy boost to the economy of rUK. Furthermore we have recently been assured that independence will result in a massive capital flight out of Scotland, again to the benefit of rUK.

All of the above is the ongoing message from the No campaign. Scotland is too poor to survive on its own and needs the rUK, read England, to pay for all our goodies. Yet here we have three Englishmen touring Scotland and pleading desperately for us to stay in the UK. Have they told their English constituents that  Scotland is apparently costing them tens of billions of pounds every year? Would the good people of England not prefer to keep these billions for themselves to spend on their NHS, rather than subsidising us Jocks?

They cannot love us that much and they cannot all have a Scottish granny living somewhere in the Highlands. Though some of them probably do own a fair chunk of our land. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is something more at stake for the British establishment. This is an establishment not known for its magnanimity when it feels its power is under threat. The kind of panic we are witnessing today does not come out of love. It comes out of fear. Will our three gallant musketeers dare to tell us and the people in rUK what their fears are? Is Scotland, far from a subsidy junkie, a net contributor to the UK? Far from running out, are we facing the prospect of an another oil boom, with massive revenues to come for decades ahead? Revenues that the UK cannot do without? Not to mention that a rUK much diminished in size might find it impossible to maintain its great power illusions. In particular its prized permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

All in all it may be that it is rUK that has most to lose as a result of Scottish independence. But will our three front men for the British establishment dare to tell us the truth?

 

 

 

 

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No campaign in denial over NHS

Do I detect a slight whiff of panic in the air from Alistair Darling and the No campaign? This as a result of polling that suggests that the threat of further privatisation of the NHS in England is swaying undecided voters into voting Yes. The rush with which spokespeople for the No campaign have bombarded the media to try and counter these claims has all the hallmarks of panic to me.

Kate Higgins at Burdzeyeview has a very good summary, here, of the facts behind the story. As usual the No side tries to steer the discussion away from the key issue, which is how the NHS is funded. So we have the unedifying spectacle of Alistair Darling and other Labour party members publicly stating that the NHS is safe in the hands of the Tories! Which must come as news to Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary at Westminster. Not to mention Mark Drakeford from the Welsh Labour party. Mr Drakeford who is the Health Minister at Cardiff is on record as saying that the NHS could become unsustainable in Wales if there is a Conservative victory at the next general election.

So we have Labour in England and Wales saying the NHS is at risk from the Tories, while Labour in Scotland is saying everything is hunky dory with the Tories. Panic stations anyone!

What is at stake here is not the degree of privatisation of the NHS in England, but the overall funding of the block grant that comes to Scotland. For this is the key issue – who and how is the Scottish block grant funded? The who part is very simple – the government of the day at Westminster. Scotland has no say whatsoever in how much of our money the UK government deigns to send back to us. The how is a bit more complicated. But basically the total sum goes up or down according to what the UK government decides to spend in England. As a matter of principle this seems to me to be a very unsatisfactory and demeaning way to go about such an important matter.

At the moment this total is going down as a result of the Tory/LibDem coalition’s austerity measures. This trend will definitely continue if there is a No vote in the referendum. All of the three main UK parties are committed to further austerity and cuts to public spending. Remember it is the total spending that matters. So spending on the NHS may be protected in England, but cuts elsewhere means that overall public spending has declined, which in turn leads to a reduction in the money available for us in Scotland. A reduction in which we have had no say whatsoever!

This is the long term threat to our NHS in Scotland from a No vote, irrespective of who wins the 2015 UK election. Even a Labour victory will not prevent further cuts to the Scottish block grant. These cuts will continue for at least a further five years and almost certainly longer, especially if the Tories win in 2015. This in turn will put considerable pressure on our NHS budget, pressure which could lead to our NHS in Scotland becoming unsustainable, as predicted by the Labour party in Wales.
The only way to sustain and improve the NHS in Scotland is to ensure that we are in control of its funding. And the only way to ensure that is to vote Yes for independence. Only independence will give us full control over all of our rich resources.

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