Tag Archives: Scottish politics

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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Did Bella really help secure a pro-indy majority?

Over the weekend there has been yet another nasty social media spat among the pro-indy movement. Kevin Williamson of Bella Caledonia has jumped on some report to claim vindication for his and Bella urging SNP voters to use their List vote to vote Green or RISE. According to Williamson if it was not for his prescience in calling for 2ndVoteGreen there would not now be a pro-indy majority at Holyrood.

This seems to be a very strange claim. For a start the number of pro-indy MSPs has gone down from 72 to 69. So if this counts as success then maybe we need a few more failures. As regards the detail of the vote in 2016 Williamson’s claim does not stand up to much scrutiny.

Before going further I want to make it clear that I am a member of the Scottish Green party and campaigned in 2016 for the Greens. However I did not do so out of some misguided notion of tactical voting, but because I supported the policies of the Green party and I also supported our candidate, Maggie Chapman. So, I have no complaints about Kevin Williamson or Bella or anyone else urging people to use their second vote to vote Green or indeed RISE.

Provided that you did so on the basis that you agreed with what these other parties were offering. But that was not primarily what Kevin and Bella did. They pretty much relentlessly advocated 2nd vote Green or RISE on the basis that a List vote for the SNP would inevitably be a wasted vote. They were so sure that the SNP were on course to clean upthe constituency seats that the List vote for the SNP would achieve nothing.

Alas this was not the case.As many others had pointed out it was by no means a certainty that the SNP would win almost all the constituency seats. Which turned out to be the case. Where Kevin and Bella’s thesis should have had most impact was in the North East region. There in 2011 the SNP did win all ten constituencies. Yet they still managed to win an additional MSP courtesy of the second List vote. However in 2016 they did not win all the constituencies, losing one to the revived Conservatives. Furthermore on the regional count the SNP lost their one List MSP. And to cap it all, despite the regular promptings from Kevin and Bella, the Greens failed to win a List seat.

So the net result in the North East was the loss of two pro-indy MSPs. With this kind of actual outcome on the ground you might think Kevin and co would be a bit more reticent about claiming success for their 2nd vote strategy. It sure as hell did not work in the North East. Now in fairness this may be because the main advocates of this strategy live in either Glasgow or Edinburgh and probably knew next to nothing about what was happening on the ground in the North East. All the more reason for them to have been less strident in their assertions.

Another example of how their predictions took no account of what was happening on the ground was the results in the Lothian region. There the Greens were successful and won an additional List seat, to bring their total to two. However, unfortunately for Kevin’s thesis this was not down to increasing the Green’s 2nd vote in the region.What secured the Green’s second seat was the success of Ruth Davidson in defeating the SNP in Edinburgh Central constituency.

Ruth Davidson won this constituency by 610 votes. It is perhaps not incidental to note that Alison Johnstone of the Greens also stood in this constituency and won 4,644 votes. Could the presence of Alison on the ballot have swung the seat away from the SNP to the Conservatives? We can never know, but what is certain is that by winning a constituency seat the Conservatives were only entitled three further List seats. Thus ensuring that the seventh and final List seat went to Andy Wightman of the Greens.

If on the other hand the SNP had retained Edinburgh Central, then the Conservatives would have won four of the List seats and Andy Wightman would still be primarily a land reform campaigner. So overall in the Lothians, as in the North East, there was a reduction in the number of pro-indy MSPs, down from ten to eight.

So in two of the electoral regions the net effect of Kevin and Bella’s strategy was a loss of four pro-indy MSPs. And this is a vindication?

 

 

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Independence Negotiations – The Czech and Slovak Experience

This post is essentially a post I wrote in 2013 for a previous blog. I post it here as a follow up to my previous post on Common Weal’s White Paper. This included a section on Interim governance and recommended a three year period for negotiations and setting up the institutions of an independent Scotland.

As I mentioned in that post, this had not been the experience of the dozens of countries that had became independent in Europe since 1990. While it is clear that no two cases are the same, I see no reason why we cannot learn from these previous cases of moving to independence.

Of the dozens of countries in Europe that became independent in the past twenty years or so, perhaps the case most relevant for Scotland is that of the independence of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  This was a peaceful process and is often referred to as  “The Velvet Divorce”.  So what lessons can we learn form the Czech and Slovak experience?  In preparing this post I have made use of a study on The Breakup of Czechoslovakia by Robert Young, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, 1994.  The full study can be found here.

The first thing to note is that when independence did come, it all happened relatively quickly.  As Young points out, “Having accepted that separation would take place, the leaders quickly established a timetable and a basic framework for the event.”   Secondly, Young noted that, “Overall negotiations involved very few essential items.”

In the case of Scotland what might this look like?  As regards a timetable, at the time of the 2014 referendum the Scottish government allowed around 18 months for the negotiations. This seems to have been chosen in large measure to fit in with the timetable for elections to the Scottish Parliament, which were due to be held in May 2016.

In the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the negotiations took less than six months. Not to fully complete, but sufficiently to allow both countries to declare independence. Whatever timetable is agreed, I see no reason why after the next referendum we would need to plan for three years of negotiations before independence.

If there is a ‘Yes’ vote it will be in the interests of all parties, including the UK, to get the negotiations over with as soon as possible.  I imagine the business and financial sectors will be pushing for a quick resolution to the negotiations.  Uncertainty is bad for business we are repeatedly told.  As will various outside bodies, such as the IMF, the EU and no doubt the USA.  Each for their own particular reasons will not want the negotiations to drag on.

When it comes to the framework for the negotiations there will be two parts to this.  This could be termed the What and the How.  As regards what the negotiations will be about, according to Young, in Czechoslovakia the big issues were:

1 the military
2 succession to international treaties
3 level of post separation economic integration
4 currency
5 citizenship
6 division of assets and liabilities”

In the case of Scotland and the rest of the UK, a couple of other issues may merit specific negotiation:

1 demarcation of maritime boundary in North Sea
2 state pension
3 welfare benefits

This gives nine big issues to be negotiated.  There will be other issues to resolve such as diplomatic representation and the future of broadcasting and the BBC.  However these and other issues are more the stuff of political debate within an independent Scotland.

When it comes to how these issues will be resolved – the how of the negotiations – the key will be to agree on some general principles.  For example in the case of Czechoslovakia two principles were agreed on early in the process.  These were:

1 fixed property would be owned by the Republic in which it was located
2 movables would be divided on a per capita basis – this was agreed at 2:1 in favour of the Czech Republic.

In practice there were important exemptions to the first principle, as most of the Federal buildings and property were in Prague, the Federal capital, located in what was to become the Czech Republic.  In recognition of this imbalance Slovakia received financial compensation in lieu.  Something similar will probably be required here as the UK is one of the most centralized states in the world and most UK government buildings and property are located in London.  The second general principle was based on population.  It should not be beyond the wit of both the UK and Scottish governments to agree on something similar.

It would also be good and encouraging if the two governments could agree on some statement about the spirit in which any negotiations will be conducted.  They need not look further than the Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, another former part of the UK.  While in Dublin the Queen had this to say about UK-Irish relations:  “Together we have much to celebrate: the ties between our people, the shared values, and the economic, business and cultural links that make us so much more than just neighbours, that make us firm friends and equal partners.”  It is certainly the aim of the Scottish government that Scotland and the rest of the UK remain firm friends and equal partners.  Will the current UK government make such an explicit statement in regard to Scotland?

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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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Scottish Labour still don’t get it!

Congratulations to Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale, the new leadership duo for the good ship Scottish Labour. Though judging by their first pronouncements they still seem very much stuck in the past. For a party that continues to aver that constitutional change for Scotland is a waste of time and irrelevant to good government, it is rather odd that the duo’s first commitment is to change the constitution of the Labour party in Scotland.

By referring to this as Scottish Labour’s Clause 4 moment, Murphy, unintentionally I presume, merely reminds us that repetitions are more of the farcical nature than anything else. The actual proposals, though dressed up as five principles, amount to very little that is new and nothing that could remotely be called profound.

Scottish Labour will henceforth be a patriotic party, patriotic for Scotland that is, will put Scotland first and will have total control over policy making for all devolved matters. Wow, if this mean anything then it is an admission that previously Scottish Labour was not a party for patriotic Scots, that Scottish Labour did not put Scotland first and that Scottish Labour did not have full say over policy in devolved matters. Quite an admission and a recognition that Johann Lamont was right in her condemnation of London control.

Yet it seems that is not what either Murphy or Dugdale actually mean. Both were at pains to point out that these changes are just to appearances. It seems that the Scottish public were under the false impression that Labour in Scotland was just a branch office under the control of UK Labour. Silly us! How could anyone imagine or even suggest such a thing. Well, apart from Johann Lamont, who is now history.

But just to be sure that no-one can make this false accusation again, Murphy and Dugdale are to change the constitution. Put in all kinds of nice sounding words and emphasise just how Scottish, and patriotic Scottish, Labour is now. Or always was. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. When you have to put down in writing just how pro Scottish you are, bells should start ringing. People will only be convinced by deeds, not constitutional changes.

When it comes to deeds, for a political party this means, at least for opposition parties, coming up with policies that put Scotland first. And judging by their initial interviews, neither Murphy nor Dugdale have anything to say as to just what these different, tailored for Scotland policies might be.  Kezia Dugdale in particular seemed unable to come up with anything other than education, when asked by a radio Scotland reporter. Now education has always been separate in Scotland, so if this is an example of the brand new Scotland first that Labour are promising it is unlikely to amount to much. It was also noticeable that Dugdale in that interview was so much happier attacking the SNP than outlining anything positive from Labour.

Despite being pressed on policy differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, Dugdale came up with nothing. Instead she praised the unity of Labour across the UK. Again and again she banged on that only Labour could save Scotland from the Tories and that voting SNP was very bad. Not a very inspiring start. Especially as voting Labour in 2010 still led to a Tory led government!

There is also the small matter of restricting Scottish Labour’s policy remit to devolved matters only.  Who decides how Scottish Labour MPs will vote on Trident for example? Or on immigration policy for instance? It seems that Scottish Labour MPs will just be lobby fodder for UK Labour as per usual. Nothing it seems is going to change in this respect.

Finally the nagging question of why now? We have had a Scottish Parliament for 15 years now. And Murphy and Dugdale have only just realised that there might be a problem with the Labour party? We have got the message intones Kezia Dugdale. Just a small matter of 15 years too late. Assuming that the new, New Labour party, Scottish branch, has really changed.

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