Friday, 1 July 2016

Let's bring down our whole rotten political system

While I'm interested in any Scottish solutions with regards to stopping an EU Brexit I think they are a distraction from the priority.  The Scottish dimension is not really about Europe it is about Independence.  For the Scottish Government see everything - absolutely everything - through the prism of Independence. For me the priority is for Britain to remain within or as close we can to the EU; and to be clear, for me, the EU has always been far more than just a free trade area.

There can't be a Second Referendum on the EU.  That would be undemocratic and we cannot call for one when we rightly call out Scot Nats for demanding Indyref2 barely two years after the first - and a clear decision to boot.

But referenda are not the only way. They are not even particularly good at deciding very technical issues like on the EU. And they are so final if the change option wins. This makes them inflexible and somewhat undemocratic in that sense. As a result of last week's EU referendum we have handed a blank cheque to I'm not entirely sure who, to do I'm not entirely sure what.

When we voted we had no idea what Leave would look like. There was no white paper, no model, no roadmap - nothing. And this is without addressing the apparent fact that two of the central claims of the winning Leave campaign appear to be ones that there was no intention, or knowingly no possibility, of delivering. That is to say paying '£350m a week into NHS' and ending free movement of people. This is also without addressing that some (not all) Leave voters were voting on misconceptions as evidenced by attitude surveys during the campaign.

I want us to stay in the EU or salvage the best we can out of our broken relationship with Europe and vote on it in the traditional way via a general election. That's perfectly democratic. Now this requires real Labour to have the balls to stand up for that. It also requires pro EU Conservatives to stop trying to hold power for power's sake. The pro EU ones are meant to be in the majority in parliament. This may all require pro EU candidates and groups to cooperate in a one-off pro-EU coupon election.

But failing all this I want the Labour Party to be strong again - they need to jettison their foolish People's Popular Front sect of malevolents and romantics. In the Conservatives I want to see the Brexiters and thinly veiled anti-Europeans (such as May) defeated and something constructive regarding Europe emerge. Most of all I feel we need outward looking British liberalism to start doing well across all the parties again.

Crucially, I want to see the Liberal Democrats, who have taken a far heavier electoral toll than they ever deserved, returning to strength.  We desperately need them in our political mix with a loud and vibrant voice.

These are turbulent times in British politics and all this may not be possible.  The stable of contenders for the Conservative leadership does not fill me with hope. Our continuing creaking democracy based on an 18th century system never designed for party politics let alone the multiple and changing choices we have today continues to depress me.  Not least when it begins to threaten our stability with embedded tribal loyalties and exaggerated regional differences with their ludicrous over representations.  This is an unresponsive democracy whose senses to real opinion are dulled, especially when they deliver absolute majorities on not much more than a third of the vote and on tiny shifts in support.

But there is many a twist and turn in the road ahead before we are done with these turbulent times.  Whatever happens I do not want to see a return to our political system as we have known it.  The realignment of the 1980s did not quite come off.  This time the fault lines of opinion have truly shifted.

This time I want to see real realignment and with it an end to our whole rotten political system.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

We need Britiah liberalism now more than ever

On 8 May 2015 Nick Clegg made a powerful speech resigning his leadership of the Liberal Democrats.  He spoke of how we need British liberalism now more than ever.  I believe the events of the last days of this EU referendum campaign show that to be true.  I'm speaking of a liberalism that goes across several parties and across people of none, but the Liberal Democrats, of which I am a member, are a key part of bringing that to the fore.  A key passage of that speech was particularly relevant.  I thought I would paraphrase the argument in the context of today.

Liberalism is not faring well against the politics of fear.  Years of hardship after the recession and insecurities in the face of globalisation have led to people reaching out for new certainties.  The politics of identity, of nationalism, of us versus them are on the rise.  It is to be hoped that our leaders realise that this brings us to a point where grievance and fear threaten to combine to drive different communities apart. We must be aware of the potentially disastrous consequences to our way of life and the threat to the integrity of our United Kingdom, if we continue to appeal to grievance rather than generosity and fear rather than hope. It's no exaggeration to say that in the absence of strong and statesmanlike leadership, Britain's place in Europe and the world, and the continued existence of our United Kingdom itself is in jeopardy. And the cruelest irony is that it is exactly at this time that British liberalism, that noble tradition that believes we are stronger together and weaker apart, is more needed now than ever before. There is no path to a fairer, greener, freer Britain  without British liberalism showing the way.

You can view the full speech here:

EU - let's remember the good things too

Over the last few of days I have spoken to a couple of people who, while previously sitting on the fence, have decided to vote for Britain to remain in the EU.  In each case they have expressed a general cynicism about Europe but have decided on balance it is better for Britain to be In rather than Out, principally because of the economic case.

I think we can do better than that.  I think it's important to remember the good things about the EU too.

I think it's important to remember good things like: being a key part of the permanent structure of peace post WW2; cross border cooperation on crime and climate change; scientific and cultural exchange; and technological and business openess - in addition to the single market.

There is an important place for a close knit supra-national community of nations - particularly in Europe with our history.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

General Election 2015 - what really happened?

It is now just over three months since the General Election result and the political landscape has been transformed.  From a position of a virtual dead heat the Conservatives are now the dominant force in British politics with no serious opposition, the Labour Party are disintegrating, the LibDems have been reduced to a pile of rubble, no-one quite knows where UKIP are, and Scotland is virtually a one party state.  

In these last few months I have had time to read a lot, think about what has happened and look at the stats.  Not least, I have had a look at some of the things the British Election Study has identified about the motivations of the electorate.  Before the myths and legends of election 2015 take root I wanted to jot down a few things I believe to be true in understanding the drivers for the electorate at this election and where I think our politics are at.

A crucial thing to understand about General Election 2015 is that the Conservative Party did not see a significant increase in their support and there was not a return to 2 party politics.  Nor was there a significant reduction in Labour support from 2010 over the country as a whole.

The key dynamics were in fact the disintegration of LibDem support, the SNP landslide in Scotland and a large anti politics UKIP vote, although to negligible electoral effect. The Greens also had a larger vote than in previous elections, although less than they might have hoped.

 Source: Electoralcalculus

The Labour result was in fact a disaster saved only by defecting Liberal Democrats. This was made worse by the realisation that they were the opposition to not altogether popular government after five years of austerity in a financial crisis struck world.

One of the main features of election 2015 was the SNP tidal wave in Scotland where they won nearly all the seats and 50% of the vote.  The 2010 Labour voters who went over to the SNP were the most concerned by cuts in public spending, the least convinced about the need for deficit reduction, and felt that if we did have to address public spending it needed to be by tax rises and not cuts.

For left of centre inclined voters, the most effective thing to do in terms of electoral positioning was to be apparently centrist, anti-austerity, and economically competent.  This worked well for the SNP.  For Labour on the other hand, having a position which seemed to be austerity-lite did not work.  They probably needed to appear anti-austerity while economically competent to be more successful. 

In Scotland, Labour particularly lost out on not seeming anti austerity enough and the nationalist / anti politics sentiment grew.  

A paradox in Scotland that sealed the SNP rout of unionist parties was that a segment of Independence Referendum No voters voted SNP to take their popular vote to an unprecedented 50%.  This crucial group were partly looking for an anti-austerity proposal and were particularly beguiled by the prospect of a Labour minority administration given what they perceived as back-bone by the SNP. A smaller group were disappointed as they perceived there were not enough new powers for Scotland on offer when in fact significant powers had been brought forward and precisely according to the timetable promised.

In the election campaign there were a mass of contradictory claims, seemingly badly costed, confusing and complex.  Therefore, it was impossible to discern what the best deal was.  When the voting public is hit by conflicting claims of an unclear message they fall back on other simpler things to make up their minds. This means their view on the party leaders.  This was crucial.

The view of party leaders in comparison with Ed Miliband helped David Cameron.  It was also another factor which helped the SNP. 

What the LibDems were offering or what they were even for had become unclear and people had stopped listening to their leader some time before election.

The Greens fell back from a promising pre-election position because of this compounded by credibility of economic competence which unravelled somewhat for them during the campaign.

The Conservatives stuck very narrowly to a mantra of having a long term economic plan.  Economic competence, at least in contrast to Labour and their leader being relatively well thought of, again in comparison with Labour helped the Conservatives maintain and very slightly increase their 2010 support.  While this was not that impressive given 2010 was a disappointing result for the Conservatives as they failed to gain a majority after 13 years of Labour and an economic crisis, it was impressive given the rise of UKIP collecting anti politics support to their right.

The Conservatives were able to tactically cannibalise LibDem seats and squeeze enough LibDem voters and UKIP voters in key seats to win a majority under our First past the Post system.

The British Election Study found limited evidence of a fear of a Labour-SNP coalition driving votes to them.  However, both the Conservatives – who operated some very sophisticated voter modelling – and the LibDems found movement at the end of the campaign in LibDem seats to the Conservatives on this very fear tipping key seats into the Conservative column and ensuring the LibDem meltdown.

Interestingly, the Conservatives had some success moving UKIP supporters their way in key seats.  This did not happen in the north where UKIP were Labour facing.  However, this meant that while UKIP did well they only won one seat even though nearly 4 million voted for them.

So in short, an election where Labour lost on perception of economic competence and their leader but also for positioning themselves as austerity lite.  An election where the Conservatives won no ringing endorsement but won a majority under our system by a narrow message of competence or at least having a plan and a very effective tactical squeeze of LibDems and UKIPers in key seats.

But overall an election where the key dynamics were actually the destruction of the LibDems and the irresistible rise of the SNP.

I leave you with a question.  Is there a parallel between Scottish Nationalists and the Irish Nationalists of 1874 who came from nowhere to get 60 seats and it never went back?

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The SNP's double paradox

    It has been interesting to see those celebrating the Greek vote on their financial crisis are a mixture of various nationalists, and the hard left and Greens.

    This highlights a paradox as far as the SNP are concerned.

    The SNP are not a hard left party and their anti-austerity line has been no different than social democrats'.  In fact their anti-austerity line has been more talk than action.

    There is also a paradox with regards to Europe.  As nationalists maybe their belief in Europe is more convenience than conviction.  The thinking of many of the supporters of the SNP is muddled at least.

EVEL is a terrible idea

My gut instinct is that David Cameron is foolish on devolution and that EVEL (English Votes for English laws)  is a terrible idea.

Ever since he made that ill judged speech on the morning of 19 September 2014 he has been playing fast and loose with Britain.  I like devolution.  I think decentralisation is good and that Britain is particularly well suited to it.  It is the natural order of things.

Indeed the natural conclusion of all this is devolution in some shape or form throughout the UK with Westminster becoming the national parliament.  The federal parliament if you like.

Some sort of devolution or decentralisation within England would be best for this to work and to be sustainable otherwise we just become England with some semi-detached add-ons like Scotland or Northern Ireland.  

Yes - EVEL creates 2 tiers of MPs and it makes it unlikely that a Scot or Welshman could ever be PM or a senior minister.  It turns Westminster into the English Parliament, which it is not.  And all this increases the chances of independence.

What then is the way forward?  I accept that the development of a full federal structure will not happen overnight but there are already some ideas on parliament, to work with as an interim step, within the Mackay Commission.   Developing wider decentralisation within England probably has to start with developing localism, regional structures like 'Northern Powerhouse' and empowering county authorities.  But that is so British.  Quirky and organic developments.

The Smith Commission and the Scotland Bill making its way through parliament gives us a strong devolved Scotland. Stronger even than German Lander and very much as promised during the Referendum campaign, however the nationalists try to spin it.  

The key for devolution to work within the United Kingdom is getting the UK level right and getting devolution right for England.  But EVEL is a terrible idea and the Conservatives are clueless about how the union and further devolution can work together.

Monday, 8 September 2014

You're thinking of voting yes? Seriously?

As I write we are 10 days away from the Independence Referendum which will decide whether Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, and becomes an independent country or not.  The polls have narrowed and the result seems uncertain.  The Yes campaign has made up ground and seems to have gained some traction, in particular based on scare stories about the future of the NHS.

I believe the Yes case is actually a rather weak one, driven by nationalists who have always wanted independence simply because that is what they have always wanted - opportunistically taking advantage of a malaise across the western world of global financial crisis and disillusion with political establishments.

And the Nationalists have been joined in this enterprise by some from the left and a hotch-potch of idealists looking for change.  A disparate group.  The problem is everyone is projecting their own dreams onto Independence. It can't be about all of them.

In fact the Yes case seems to be not much more than this:  Bad things happen.  Westminster is to blame.  Vote for independence and bad things won't happen anymore.

My concern is I have seen very little, if any, serious analysis of why we have had an economic crisis and austerity, and I have seen no solutions offered up by the Yes side.  There is much said about poverty and inequality but no serious discussion about how we can tackle these issues.

What we have instead is plenty of faux anger and overstated argument.  Plenty of demonising and othering of scapegoats - mostly summed up by the concept of 'Westminster'.

The Yes campaign see themselves as the real change makers, the catalyst for a thousand lights of radical thought to make a better nation.  They believe they are civic nationalists building something new and good.  Civic nationalism of course takes its inspiration from enlightenment thought and the American Revolution of the 18th century. One of its great writers was Tom Paine. His seminal work "Common Sense" would resonate with many a Yes supporter almost as much as it inspired the revolutionaries of 1776.  In it he wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again".

But here's the thing.  The Scots are in truth quite conservative.  The future that is on offer through independence, far from being progressive about how we can take forward a modern free market welfare state adapted for the 21st century, seems rather more likely to be a regressive step back to the 1970s.  This is a vision that if realised would be unlikely to achieve the results hoped for.

The challenge for Scotland remains, whether we vote Yes or No, how do we spread the prosperity we undoubtedly enjoy in the East to central and western Scotland, and how do we improve our health issues.     

But don’t take it from me.  The nationalists' case is disingenuous and a false one and there are many good reasons to remain part and parcel of Britain.  I have set many of them out below each with some background should you want to read further.

1.  It's not just about the numbers 

It's not about the numbers (Kevin Hague in Chokka Blog)

Why our shared values matter

"At the heart of Britain there is a fusion of Scottish principles of solidarity, egalitarianism and civil society entwined with English values of liberty, tolerance and pragmatism that has created a union for social justice where we pool and share risks and resources across the entire United Kingdom."

(Gordon Brown Labour)

We are not just part of Britain, we made Britain (Ruth Davidson Conservative)

I will vote No because I love Scotland (Ming Campbell Liberal Democrat)

Head and Heart (Archie McPherson)

2.  More Powers

The argument is that Scotland already enjoys the best of both worlds - we have a strong Scottish Parliament, with full control of the NHS, schools and policing, and also the strength and security of being part of the UK.

And each of the three political parties supporting Better Together has, over the last two years, considered developed and published thought through proposals for more powers and further ‘federalising’ the UK.  The three parties have made a public and joint commitment to work together to deliver more powers after a No vote.  Parties working together originally delivered devolution in 1999.  The parties have now delivered a detailed timetable about how they will move swiftly to implement this after the referendum.

Labour’s proposals

The Conservative proposals

The LibDem proposals

3. The economy

Scotland could go it alone but is better as part of the UK (The Economist)

66% of the Scottish economy is in the private sector.  About 40%, or 859,000 jobs, are dependent on trade and ownership links to the UK, while the remaining 26% are linked to the wider world economy. (Prof Ashcroft Strathclyde University - Scottish Economy Watch)

Our economy within the UK is highly interlinked and London is actually (on balance) an asset to the Scottish economy. 
(Prof Ashcroft Strathclyde University - Scottish Economy Watch)

The effect of having a border - trade flows, migration flows and capital flows are significantly lower across international borders than within a unified country. 
(Prof Ashcroft Strathclyde University - Scottish Economy Watch)

Scotland's exports to the rest of the UK accounts for 70% of our 'exports'
(Prof Ashcroft Strathclyde University - Scottish Economy Watch)

Small countries are neither more or less successful than large ones but are more volatile.  (Prof Ashcroft Strathclyde University - Scottish Economy Watch)

Some small states can do well out of independence in some ways. 
(Prof Ashcroft Strathclyde University - Scottish Economy Watch)

The greater tax receipts we have received as a result of oil were invested for the people of Scotland, creating jobs and investing in public services.  We have in effect had our oil fund all along.
(Prof Ashcroft Strathclyde University - Scottish Economy Watch)

We would not be £8.3bn better off under independence.  This is untrue. 
(Kevin Hague in Chokka Blog)

A summary of some other key talking points (Kevin Hague in Chokka Blog)

- Companies in Scotland that trade with the rest of the UK would probably be damaged and suffer job losses by the effect of establishing a border.

- GDP per head does not tell you how rich a country is - an independent Scottish economy would be a middle ranking economy with high levels of foreign ownership.

- Scotland would face some significant hurdles to EU membership and any terms on which we joined.

- The start up costs for an independent are probably close to £2.5bn after analysing the range of estimates.

- Business for Scotland does not represent business in Scotland and is not a serious think tank in any way.

4.  The NHS

The Nationalists are lying about the NHS to gain electoral advantage. (Dr Gregor on the BBC)

Health service spending in England is increasing in real terms, there is more spending per head of population on health in Scotland under devolution, the Scottish Government makes extensive use of private firms to provide healthcare, there is no political party proposing ending the NHS in England - it would be political suicide to do so.  What political arguments there are in England are over the best way to provide healthcare with an ageing population and increasing costs of technology - not over taking away free healthcare.  

5.  Poverty

The SNP's record on poverty is not a good one.  In 7 years in government in Scotland, despite having full control of health and education the SNP have not introduced a single redistributive policy - not one!

6   The EU

An independent Scotland would start her life outside the EU; even thereafter Scotland would enjoy EU membership on terms far less beneficial and generous than those enjoyed now by the UK.  (The definitive guide to the process to joining the EU following leaving the UK by Prof Adam Tomkins, Glasgow University)

7.  Pensions

Pension schemes operating between Scotland and the remainder of the UK would be classed as ‘cross-border’ under EU law if Scotland votes ‘yes’.  This means EU solvency requirements would have major cost and cash flow implications for employers with cross-border pension schemes.  This would be a major financial challenge for employers. (ICAS report)

Scotland faces a challenge to provide pensions after independence for both state pensions and private pension schemes.  (Malcolm MacLean, Pensions expert writing in Money Marketing)

Scotland faces a pensions timebomb due to our ageing population. Pooling resources across over 60m people to provide pensions is one of the big advantages of the UK.  (Daily Record)

8.  Financial Services and bailing out the banks

An independent Scotland would have seriously struggled to bail out the banks in the crash of 2007/08.  In this it is vital to understand the the distinction between giving distressed banks short-term liquidity help and bailing them out. During the crises, UK banks were, for instance, given short-term liquidity help from both the UK government and other governments where they were operating, such as the US government. The bail-out of UK banks, however, came from the UK government, to the sum of somewhere in the vicinity of £66 billion, or over half of Scotland’s GDP in 2010 (which stood at about £110 billion).  (Brad MacKay, University of Edinburgh "The Future of the UK and Scotland")

9.  The advantages of being part of the UK

If you are serious about looking into how Scotland works within the UK and the benefits to Scotland of being in the UK, and there are many, read the Scotland Analysis papers from the UK treasury.

Some of the key advantages of the UK to Scotland include

- Being part of the UK energy market

- The pooled resource across a union for social justice in pensions

- Being part of an integrated single market and currency union

- Science, research and our universities sector within the UK.

- Our financial services industry and banking within a UK sector which due to regulation, tax and currency would have to fragment after separation.

-  The value of UK Defence industries and military shipbuilding to Scotland

10.  The Nationalists' questions

Is there a democratic deficit in Scotland? (Effie Deans blog)

The McCrone Report myth - the extent of North Sea Oil was never a secret.

The Wee Blue Book from extreme nationalist website Wings over Scotland is erroneous in many of its details or deliberately misleading as it is written with an agenda of nationalist propaganda.  Consider this evidence. (Kevin Hague in Chokka Blog)

Business for Scotland do not represent businesses that employ anyone or that deal cross border.  They have no credibility.  The detail (Kevin Hague in Chokka Blog)

It's not about the SNP - yes it is! (Effie Deans blog)

Wings over Scotland is an extreme nationalist blogsite with an agenda of nationalist propaganda.  It is homophobic and mysoginistic.  It also has a consistently angry and outraged tone aiming poisoned articles at its targets.  This is negative and provokes needless hate and division and as such has no place in the debate over Scotland's future. (Edinburgh Eye)

Think again - (Nupateer.Com)