Tag Archives: Politics

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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EFTA to the rescue?

Robin McAlpine has another article on Common Space on how to win indyref2.This time it is for an independent Scotland to join EFTA(European Free Trade Association]). Effectively this means joining, or staying in, the EU’s Single Market, but leaving the EU Customs Union.This could according to Robin “solve our trade problems, our Brexit problems, our ‘Europe’s bad for Scottish fishing and agriculture’ problems and more”. The other advantage according to Robin is that this  will help win indyref2 as this option would reassure those who voted to Leave the EU last summer.

These are quite considerable claims, and I am immediately reminded of the old adage: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. It is interesting that in the article Robin makes this plea to the movement,”take tricky issues more seriously – borders, trade, tariffs and so on. These are real issues that won’t disappear through the power of rhetoric”. It is a very good plea. It is just a pity that Robin did not apply it to this article, which is long on rhetoric and remarkably free of evidence.

This lack of evidence is apparent in his comments on the EU. In order to make joining EFTA a better option, he clearly felt he needed to portray the EU in the worst possible light. According to Robin the EU is really, really bad.  Here are some of the things Robin has to say about the EU.  “I used to believe in the project when it was largely a social one. Now it has become a corporate project, I feel little commitment. The whole project is in crisis anyway and may not last. And with varying forms of extremist government in Poland, Hungary and Croatia and with France, Austria, Holland and others all being nip-and-tuck close to the same thing, it’s not anything like as attractive a project as it was.”

Robin also claims that the EU creates problems and imposes policies which harm Scottish interests. While remaining in the EU could result in Scotland being part of a political union with potential fascists.

All very disturbing if not downright nasty. But is any of it true? The claim that the EU has changed from a social project to a corporate one for example. Robin provides no clarification by what he means by a corporate project. Is this just the usual Lexit assertion that the EU is a bosses’ club. Or that the EU is dominated by business interests. It would help if Robin had provided us with some clarity as regards to what he means by this term, corporate project. It would also help if he had offered us some evidence to support this claim. It seems to betray some ignorance of how the EU came about. A clue can be found in the Treaty of Rome, way back in the mid 1950s. This treaty established the European Economic Community, popularly known as the Common Market. Subsequently this name has changed to the Single Market. But it is quite clear that from its inception the EU has always been about economics. For most member states, other than the UK under Tory rule, the Common or Single Market has always included social measures along with health and safety. So pace Robin there is no fundamental divide between the economic and the social in the EU.

What about the claim that the project is in crisis and may not last. Again no evidence is provided to back up this assertion. It is begs the question of why is Robin so keen on Scotland joining EFTA and the Single Market. If the EU does collapse, so will the Single Market. For Robin to spend so much time extolling the benefits of Scotland joining the Single Market, I can only assume that he does not expect the EU to collapse and only included this unfounded assertion in order to further denigrate the EU.

The same applies to his suggestion that extremists are on the verge of taking over many member states and that the EU could become a political union with potential fascists. Again no evidence is offered. I am surprised that Robin is peddling this line as his claim boils down to the following. It would be extremely bad for Scottish ministers to enter a room with extremists and potential fascists and get involved in discussing and voting on decisions affecting the Single Market. On the other hand it is just dandy for these same extremists and potential fascists to influence and vote on these decisions which Scotland would then have to just accept.  Doesn’t make much sense to me.

His other claim that the EU creates problems and imposes policies which harm Scottish interests is also evidence free. Only agriculture and fisheries are mentioned in his article. Does this mean that these are the only two sectors of the Scottish economy which have problems with the EU? Even with these two sectors no actual evidence is provided. We know that many, most? farmers and fishermen oppose the EU, but are we reduced to accepting at face value whatever any interest group asserts? What about some serious analysis Robin?

This sudden concern for farmers and fishermen also sits rather awkwardly with Robin’s earlier article on How to win indy2 with a new story. There Robin was insistent that “polling evidence also states clearly that if we don’t have a story that works for people who earn less than £25,000 a year, we lose.” Not sure how that squares with appealing or appeasing the mostly rich farmers and fishermen.

Having tried to establish that the EU is really bad and we should leave it, Robin goes on to recommend that Scotland stays in the Single Market by joining EFTA. Remaining in the Single Market would be beneficial for Scotland according to Robin, something I wholeheartedly agree with. However Robin also recommend that Scotland leaves the EU Customs Union. This would allow Scotland to negotiate its own trade deals with other countries.

There is one other country that Robin has in mind for a new trade deal, and this is the UK or what would by then have become rUK. Robin is much taken with the fact that rUK is the destination for most of Scotland’s exports and naturally does not want to damage this trade.  As Robin himself puts it, “Nevertheless, exports to the UK really are much more important to us at the moment than exports to the EU and we need to take that seriously.   There is a very straightforward solution to this which solves all these problems and that’s to agree a British Isles Trade Zone.”

Now, as a solution this does seem a bit on the grandiose side. Not to mention perhaps just a bit fantastical. Again it all depends on what Robin means by his use of the term ‘British Isles’. This is not a term much, if at all in current use. Older atlases of the vintage of my childhood did use the term British Isles to cover England, Wales, Scotland, all of Ireland and the many other smaller islands. However this term is hardly if ever used nowadays. If Robin intends his Trade Zone to include the Republic the term should have been a British and Irish Isles Trade Zone.  On the other hand if Robin simply means a Trade Zone between and independent Scotland and rUK, why not just say so. I cannot see how the Republic could sign such a deal as long as it remains in the EU.

I confess to being completely confused as to what Robin is advocating here. All the more so, as he offers no clarification as to how this would be agreed and exactly what it would cover. A couple of further points on this. Robin talks about a tariff free trade deal. However, given that tariffs on goods are generally very low, the main obstacles to trade are the non-tarrif barriers. These can include the standards and regulations that characterise the Single Market for example. The Single Market which rUK is committed to leaving. So there may be little scope for a deal which includes much in the way of non-tariff barriers. Secondly trade deals do not tend to include services. Something that is important to the Scottish economy. Thirdly by being in the Single Market, but not the Customs Union there will be additional costs on Scottish businesses. As one of the comments to Robin’s article puts it. “An additional difficulty is that under EFTA/EEA route, Scotland would be outside the customs union and therefore subject to EU rules of origin (which are often higher barriers than default WTO tariffs). This would harm Scottish manufacturing exporters, and moreover, make it less attractive to rUK firms seeking to relocate (who instead might just choose Ireland).”

All of which demonstrates that Robin’s solution may be much, much more complicated than he is prepared to admit, and may incur some serious downsides.

Finally Robin claims that this option – leaving the EU, but remaining in the Single Market – will help win the next independence referendum. The argument here is that, “We’re definitely losing people who previously supported independence but post-Brexit don’t.” By leaving the EU and joining EFTA instead we can win these voters back. As Robin puts it, “Admitting that on independence Scotland will be in EFTA and that we would then have to choose a route forward from there offers reassurance that Eurosceptics would still have some degree of agency on the EU issue if they vote for independence.”

I have to say this sound very much like clutching at straws. By staying in the Single Market, Scotland will have to agree to 1) the free movement of people; 2) implement all the rules, regulations and directives emanating from the EU; 3) accepting the primacy of the EU Court of Justice in settling disputes; 4) continue to pay a fee to the EU.  I would like Robin to explain which of these conditions Leavers agree with. All the evidence is that it was precisely to get out of these conditions (take back control, remember) that most Leavers voted the way they did.

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Common Weal White Paper 2

The second section of Common Weal’s White Paper considers the Key Institutions of an Independent Scotland. This apparently will include reforming our current Scottish Parliament. The White Paper calls for two specific changes: 1. increasing the number of MSPs and 2. creating a Citizens Chamber. What is notable about both suggested reforms is that no context for either is provided. Common Weal just asserts that they will be necessary.

As regards a Citizens Chamber the justification according to the White Paper is that Scotland does not have a revising chamber and would no longer have Westminster, the House of Lords or any other parliamentary body with the power to examine its work. While it is true that Scotland does not have a revising chamber, I am not sure that Westminster or the House of Lords offer much in the way of scrutiny. There is also the not insignificant matter of democratic legitimacy. Which I would suggest both bodies conspicuously lack in relation to Scotland. So losing their input is not much of a loss at all as far as I can see.

The unstated assumption behind this claim is that Scotland needs a revising chamber. But no evidence whatsoever is provided as to why this is so. In particular no reference is made to the actual experience of other independent countries. While many countries do have a revising or second chamber, nearly all of them are countries with much, much larger populations than Scotland.

For countries with a population similar to Scotland or less than Scotland’s, a unicameral parliament is the norm. For example of the 10 member states of the European Union with a population similar to or less than Scotland, eight manage successfully with just one chamber. Only Ireland and Slovenia have felt it necessary to have a revising chamber.  Outwith the EU, nine of the 10 countries with populations similar to or less than Scotland also manage with just one parliamentary chamber. The Exception is Bosnia and Herzegovina, which may have its recent bloody history as a reason for needing a second chamber.

Looking beyond Europe there does not appear to be much evidence that a revising chamber for small countries is needed. Our antipodean cousins in New Zealand also manage to run a successful country with just one chamber.

None of the above means that creating a revising chamber is not something worth considering. It should mean at the very least that someone explains why Scotland needs an additional chamber when just about every other country of similar size manages well without one.

The other claim is that we will need to increase the number of MSPs with independence. As the White Paper puts it: “Upon independence the Scottish Parliament shall take on all responsibilities currently reserved to Westminster as well as maintaining existing responsibilities, leading to a substantial increase in workload which cannot be performed by the existing Parliament. The number of members of the Scottish Parliament shall therefore be expanded to reflect the loss of Members of Parliament at Westminster.”

Notice that this is not a recommendation. The use of the word “shall” implies that an increase in the number of MSPs will happen. However once again no context for this is provided. For example how does the size of the Scottish Parliament compare with parliaments in other similar countries? At first glance this comparison does provide some grounds for a larger number of MSPs. Of the five EU countries with a population very much similar in size to Scotland, all five have a larger number of parliamentarians. However there is no pattern to this. The numbers range from 150 for Slovakia to 179 for Denmark, while Finland has 200 MPs.

It is not obvious why there is such a wide range. Which emphasises a key point – there does not appear to be any clear relationship between the population of a country and the number of MPs in parliament. This holds true for countries outwith the EU. Macedonia with a population of around two million has a parliament with 123 MPs, while Moldova with a three and a half million people manages with just 101 MPs.

The other important factor in all this is that irrespective of the size of the population of a country, its government and parliament will have to carry out pretty much the same functions. This applies to even very small countries such as Luxembourg, Malta etc. Estonia for example has a population of 1.3 million and a parliament with 101 members. Yet Estonia manages to sustain a government with 14 ministries in addition to the Prime Minister. The same is true for countries outwith Europe. Costa Rica with five million people somehow manages with just 57 MPs. Perhaps a more relevant example is our friends in the south pacific, New Zealand. With a population slightly smaller than Scotland, New Zealand manages to successfully run itself and promote the country internationally, with a parliament of 120 MPs.

Once again this is not to say that an increase in the number of MSPs is out of the question. However it is incumbent on those proposing this increase to explain why it is necessary. Especially as this will inevitably involve some considerable expense and disruption. In particular they need to explain why this imperative has to form part of the prospective for independence. If New Zealand can manage as a successful independent country with 120 MPs I am convinced that Scotland can do so with 129MPs.

 

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