Tag Archives: Common Weal

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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Common Weal’s White Paper 1

Last Saturday along with around 800 others I attended the Scottish Independence Convention’s conference on preparing for the next indy referendum. A lot of very interesting and challenging points were raised and I thank SIC for organising the event. Thanks are also due to the indy live team and a special thank you goes to Shona McAlpine who seemed to single handedly be responsible for the event, which she did with charm and efficiency. I don’t want to say anything about the event itself as Thomas Widman has already written about this and I concur with all his points.

What I want to do here is move things on a bit by looking at the draft White Paper produced by Common Weal. This is a positive initiative which deserves a wide audience and constructive criticism. My first thought on reading the paper is that there appears to be very little in the way of international comparisons. This is rather strange as since 1990 we have witnessed the emergence of 12 newly independent states in Europe alone. More if you consider the Caucausian republics as part of Europe. There is therefore a considerable body of evidence and precedent about building a new state. The White Paper as it stands seems to have ignored this.

This lack of international experience is most evident in the first section, which is entitled Interim Governance Period. According to the White Paper, Scotland will need up to three years of interim governance before becoming independent. No reason is given for this long period. It cannot be based on the experience of other European countries, none of which needed anything like a three year waiting period. Most managed to become independent with hardly any waiting period at all. For example, Slovenia held a referendum on 23rd December 1990 and declared independence on 25th June 1991. Montenegro needed even less time. The referendum was held on 21st May 2006 and independence was declared on 3rd June of the same year. Some countries moved to independence without a referendum. Slovakia for example passed an act of independence in their parliament on 17th July 1992. There followed five months of negotiations which ended with the dissolution of Czechoslovakia on 31st December 1992. Slovakia then became formally independent on 1st January 1993.

There are two points from the above that are relevant here. The first is that it appears that no other country has needed anything like an extensive interim period prior to independence. Certainly nothing like three years. This does not mean that Scotland does not need such an extensive interim period. What it does mean though is that if you are advocating this interim period, you ought to proved some kind of coherent reason for it. Not just plough on regardless. The second point is that in the examples above, independence came without the full conclusions of negotiations. In some cases independence came before negotiations had even started.

This leads on to the specifics of the proposals in the White Paper. Even if, as I would argue, an extended interim period is not needed, there will still be a need for negotiations and a transition. The White Paper proposes a National Commission(NC) for the creation of a Scottish State. There is merit in this idea. However where I take issue with the White Paper is its proposal that the NC be governed by a Council, separate from the government. Not at all sure why we would need this Council. It would be in effect an additional, parallel government. This would be cumbersome, burocratic, undemocratic and likely to be confusing to the public.

The White Paper charges the NC with five specific tasks. These are:

  1. design the institutions of an independent Scotland
  2. implement these institutions
  3. negotiate the terms of separation from UK
  4. develop a constitution
  5. set a date for independence

These are in essence what needs to be done. However it is not at all clear why they all need to be done after a referendum and before a declaration of independence. Tasks 1, 4 and 5 can all be done well before the next referendum, never mind independence day. They may not all be completed, but most of the work can be done before another referendum. This is particularly the case with the first task. Again the experience of other countries will come in handy here.  Developing a constitution can be started this year. I am in favour of this, as developing a constitution could be a positive way of engaging members of the public.

The other two tasks clearly cannot be completed or even undertaken before the next referendum.  However much work on the third task can be begun now. It would in fact be very helpful if the parameters of the separation deal were established sooner rather than later. Again the experience of other countries will provide evidence on how these negotiations can be conducted and what they will cover. We can also state in advance the principles that we would want to underpin the negotiations.

Much of the work which the White Paper seeks to entrust to this NC after a referendum is already underway. Some of it by Common Weal itself. Which makes it all the more surprising why the White Paper is so wedded to this Interim governance period. What we do need more of is to look at the experience of other newly independent countries and learn from them. Something the White Paper does not seem to have done.

 

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Who wants to leave the EU?

One of the key battlegrounds of the campaign for Scottish independence is the EU. Mostly this is about whether an independent Scotland would remain in the EU or somehow be forced out and have to re-apply. On the whole this issue has generated more fiction than fact, especially from the NO side. But one by one their scare stories dissolve into thin air. The latest is the confirmation, yet again, by the Spanish Foreign Minister that Spain would not oppose Scotland’s membership of the EU. However below the surface there is an interesting array of groups on both the right and the left advocating that either the UK as a whole or an independent Scotland should leave the EU. Though they come from widely different perspectives, they both agree that the EU is unreformable and that its regulations are an unsurmountable obstacle to progress.

The right has done most of the running on promoting an anti-EU agenda. They have operated primarily in England and advocate that the UK leave the EU. Though they will have some support in Scotland, this right wing opposition to the EU is based on UKIP and a significant part of the Tory party. Neither of which has much representation in Scotland. There seems to be two strands to their opposition. One is to oppose immigration, in large part due to a populist fear of foreigners, which is one of the key planks of UKIP. The other strand comes from a segment of the business community. Here the claim is that EU regulations are a millstone round the neck of British firms. According to a recent article by John Longworth of the British Chambers of Commerce in the Daily Mail, they want changes in employment law, health and safety, regional development, justice and home affairs. If not they would want the UK to leave the EU. Now it is not clear just why these unnamed EU regulations are holding back British firms. After all EU regulations apply to all 28 member states and German firms for example seem to have no problem in competing in world markets. The opposition to the EU from the right tends to be based on the desire to do away with what little safeguards the EU provides for workers. No doubt why they have relatively little support in Scotland.

On the other hand there is also significant opposition to the EU from the left, or perhaps more accurately the radical left. Last year’s Radical Independence Conference had a session devoted to the EU, with the general consensus that Scotland would be better off by leaving the EU. This has been followed up more recently by a paper from the Jimmy Reid Foundation on Common Weal approaches to international organizations and trade agreement. You can download the paper here. While this paper deals with all international organizations the key argument also applies to the EU. In summary this view is: “All of these underpin the approach to economic development known as neoliberalism. These are often in conflict with other models of economic development which favour social as well as economic outcomes (such as the Common Weal project in Scotland). While membership of these institutions may well be seen as necessary, it must be understood that they are also immediately limiting when it comes to pursuing a number of economic development strategies, strategies which might greatly benefit Scotland.” Now this is undoubtedly true. However a number of caveats need to be raised. Firstly as this report itself recognizes some progressive reforms are possible within the EU. The Common Weal project advocates many of the principles of what it describes as the Coordinated Market Economies found in Nordic countries. As all the Nordic countries are either full members of the EU or are in the Single Market, this approach at least is compatible with remaining in the EU. The second and to my mind more serious caveat is that what is immediately and most limiting to the pursuit of Common Weal type social and economic reforms is not the EU, but the electorate in Scotland. One does not need to be John Curtice to point out that the prospects for the radical left winning power in the Scottish Parliament are at the moment pretty slim. If we in the left can start creating in Scotland our own version of the Nordic model, many of us will be well pleased. Achieving this kind of transformation change will be hard enough and will take more than two parliamentary terms to embed. If we can then go on to develop a coherent set of policy proposals for further social and economic change, proposals which can then win majority support in a future general election, we can then, and only then, start to seriously think about whether leaving the EU is necessary or not.

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