Monday, 14 April 2014

Getting the Government that We Vote for

"For half the time since the end of the Second World War we have been saddled with governments we did not vote for. Even when Scotland votes Labour, there is no guarantee that we end up with a Labour government at Westminster. That decision is made by others. It is out of our hands." Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish National Party Conference April 2014
This is a common theme behind a lot of the Yes campaign's arguments, particularly from the SNP. On a superficial level, it is seductive. The narrative of Scotland as a centre-left Labour stronghold and that governments voted for by English (sic.) voters to the contrary go against the will of the Scottish people, has become dominant.

Not so simple

But scratch beneath the surface, and the picture is not nearly so clear. What are our assumptions about what is a legitimate government? Is it the popular vote? Is it the number of seats? Is a party with more than 50% of the vote but fewer than 50% of the seats more or less legitimate than a party with the opposite?

The last time Scotland gave both a majority of the popular vote and a majority of the seats to any political party was in 1955. To whom? To the Unionists! The Scottish wing of the Conservative ticket. Scotland gave 50.1% of the vote, and 50.7% of the seats to the Tories. In that election, somewhat ironically, the country as a whole gave the Conservatives only a minority of the popular vote. Under an umbrella of identities, including the Ulster Unionists and National Liberals, the Tories achieved more than 50% of the vote and seats in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but a relatively poor showing in Wales left them on 49.7% of the vote of the British public.

Since then, it's been a much more subtle story. True, the Labour Party have held the majority of seats in every General Election in Scotland since, and the Conservative share of the popular vote has fallen significantly. But it should be observed that the majority of Scots voted for parties other than the Labour Party in every General Election since the Second World War. Granted, Labour came close on many occasions to meeting such a threshold. For many years they have confidently won the plurality of votes at Westminster elections in Scotland. But if we are to take the democratic burden at its highest, then save the 1955 election, no part of the UK has truly got the government it voted for, save on a few occasions Wales with a Labour Government or Northern Ireland with an Ulster Unionist/Conservative one.

So what?

This point isn't to suggest that none of the governments were legitimate, but to ask for much clearer criteria as to what we consider to be what we voted for. All electoral systems, even proportional ones, make approximations and distortions of the raw electoral desires of the population to provide a functioning, representative assembly. We make constant trade-offs between stability and legitimacy: this is why, for example, the SNP have a working majority, but only 45% or so of the popular vote at Holyrood. We ignore, further, the level of turnout when saying whether a government is legitimate.

More Scots voted for either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 General Election than voted for the Scottish National Party on the regional list in 2011. This quirk is down as much to the much lower turnout of Holyrood Elections (circa 50%) than Westminster elections (circa 65%), and only just flips the other way if we only consider the constituency vote at Holyrood, but in democratic terms, the level of public endorsement for those governments is broadly the same. The argument that often follows this observation, that most (Scottish) Lib Dem voters would not have voted that way if they thought they would go into coalition with the Tories is somewhat undermined by the Lib Dems saying they would be happy to enter into coalition with their of the other two parties, depending on the terms. But all that proves is that legitimacy is more complex than raw votes or seats.

The Numbers

But let's then take Nicola Sturgeon's specific claim, that for half the time since WWII, Scotland has ended up with governments it didn't vote for. If we assume by this she means in terms of seats, the data churns out as follows:

  • Scotland voted for a Labour government in every election since 1945, except for 1951 and 1955.
    • In 1951, Scotland voted for a tied Parliament at 37 seats each, plus one Liberal. The Conservative ticket won the popular vote in Scotland with 48.6%.
    • In 1955 Scotland voted for a Tory Government (see above)
  • Out of 18 elections, the government formed would have been qualitatively different if only Scottish seats were taken into consideration on 10 occasions.
    • On six of these occasions, a Scottish Labour majority led to a Tory Majority Government (1959, 1970, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992)
    • On one occasion, a Scottish hung parliament led to a Tory majority Government (1951, see above)
    • On one occasion, a rest of UK Tory majority led to a majority Labour Government (1964)
    • On one occasion, the rest of UK voted for a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party, but a Labour minority government was formed (February 1974)
    • On one occasion, a rest of UK Tory majority led to a Tory-Liberal Coalition Government being formed (2010)
On Sturgeon's specific claim we get the following:

  • The total period of time in which a government has been formed in accordance with Scotland's wishes since 1945 is 33 years and 11 months. This includes the 1945, 1950, 1955, 1964, 1966, October 1974, 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections.
    • If you include the 1955 election, where the Tories tied on seats but won the Scottish popular vote, this increases by 3 years 7 months
    • If you include the February 1974 election, in which Scottish votes flip a whole UK popular vote win for the Tories, and an rUK Tory minority from a 24 seat lead to a 5 seat Labour minority, leading to a Labour minority administration being formed, Scotland got a government it voted for by an additional 8 months.
  •  The total period of time in which a government has been formed contrary to Scotland's wishes is 34 years 10 months. This includes the 1959, 1970, February 1974, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 2010 elections, up to April 2014.
The tenor of the claim, therefore is broadly true, but it doesn't tell the full story. Only just over half of the period since WWII has delivered governments not in accordance with Scotland's wishes (as expressed through seats), and it drops to under half depending on how you deal with the 1955 and February 1974 elections.

But that, again, isn't the full picture. If we did the same exercise for Wales, their position would be even less favourable than Scotland's. Wales has frequently voted more than 50% for Labour since the war and always in the plurality and in terms of seats. Wales additionally did not get the government it voted for in 1955 (4 years 5 months). The impact on the 2010 election would have been to move the Tories slightly closer to an overall majority, such that a minority government or a two-party coalition with the DUP may have been, electorally, more likely. In any case, Wales has not had the government it voted for for 39 years 3 months since the war.

If we look at Northern Ireland, ever since the break between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives after the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974, none of the parties participating in elections have had formal links with the platform of any of the major UK political parties. Their influence and representation has been next to non-existent in UK elections. By the same metric, NI has not had the UK government it voted for for 52 years 4 months since the war.

And what about England? Leave aside the Bush-Gore style precursor it had in 1951 (where Labour very marginally won the popular vote but the Tories comfortably won on seats). In 1964, England narrowly voted for a Tory Government, and got a Labour one. Similarly, in February 1974, they voted Tory and got a Labour (minority) government. In October 1974, they voted (just) for a hung parliament, with Labour as the largest party, but got a Labour majority. And as recently as 2010, they voted for a Conservative government, and got saddled with a Conservative-Liberal coalition. All in all, England didn't get the government it voted for 10 years 7 months since the war.

What this shows, perhaps more importantly, is that the UK and Scotland have sought to elect the same government for 23 years and 8 months of the last 68 years and 9 months. This isn't a massively strong consensus, but it is consensus. Some seek to argue that in those situations, Scotland has no effect on the result. That much is true. But it is evidence, to some extent at least, of a common cause or direction existing between those nations during that period.

When they have disagreed, Scotland has prevailed in 10 years and 3 months of them, and has not prevailed in 34 years 10 months. So we get just under 1 in 4 of the governments when we disagree with the UK as a whole. This is, if anything evidence of more influence than you might expect for such a small minority of the population in a democracy. The rest of the UK is almost 12 times as populous as Scotland. The fact that it has got the government it wanted only 3/4 of the time where there has been a dispute indicates, if anything, that taken as a whole it is comparatively less influential, all other things being equal, than we would expect it to be.

What should we learn?

What it indicates is that rUK does not speak with one voice either. If we were to find an acceptable geographical boundary to define "the North" of England, you will probably find that it has been denied the government it voted for every bit as often as Scotland or Wales. I suspect also that if you were to take London and the South East of England, it too would have a very mixed picture as to how often it gets the government it votes for, given it almost never votes Labour yet there have been more than 30 years of Labour governments since the war. We are left with the, somewhat unremarkable, conclusion that an area of population more than 80% of the UK gets its way in elections more often than one which represents about 8% of the UK, which in turn gets more of its own way than two parts of the UK representing 5% and 3% of the population.

Against this context, saying that Scotland should always get the government it votes for assumes that the "we" in "who we vote for" necessarily must be Scotland. This should not be assumed. Indeed, it is the question we're being asked to determine. At the moment, our institutions assume that "we" are the UK, that we are Britain, for the purposes of making many important decisions. We are being asked, in this referendum, whether this should continue, or whether the "we" should be someone else. Saying Scotland needs to get the government it votes for presupposes the answer to that question.

For Scottish nationalists, this is perfectly logical. They believe that, because Scotland is a nation, it comprises, at some level, a political unity, and therefore should have autonomy over how they make decisions and who gets to make them for them. Sturgeon's argument, in this instance, is actually not relevant. Even if we voted in lockstep with the rest of the UK, this would be an argument for breaking away and making (albeit the same decisions) for ourselves. This group have a problem when they come to explain our continued participation in institutions like the European Parliament, where Scotland will have influence over about 1% of the MEPs that are elected there. They have little by way of an answer explaining why we should pool sovereignty in countless international organisations, which will make decisions that affect our interests, but over which we have little day-to-day democratic control.

But for internationalists, multi-nationalists, or non-nationalists, who support independence, we do have an answer to those questions. This is fundamentally not about whether we "get the government we vote for" but deciding "who should be the we" for most of our purposes. We should avoid claiming that Scotland has some special claim to govern itself. Rather we should be starting from a more universalist position that decisions should be taken as closely to the people they affect as is possible, practical and expedient. Independence is merely one accessible starting point beyond which to give greater control to local communities over the way they govern themselves.

Sometimes a Scotland-wide approach to something will be preferable to something more local, but we should be clear that it is the decision of those groups to pool those powers in the first place, and that they ultimately have the right to reclaim it. If Shetland wants autonomy over aspects of its domestic affairs, or in extremis, to achieve statehood in its own right, then it should be entitled to do so. There may be situations where pooling power with the rest of the current UK, or with the EU, or other collections of peoples is advantageous over bilateral relationships, but we should be clear that it is a decision for those subsidary communities to take and that they may withdraw themselves from those arrangements should it cease to be their wish.

The argument is, in many respects, a federalist one. The problem with the United Kingdom is not that we do not share considerable values with our English, Welsh and Northern Irish neighbours. The problem is that the terms on which we work together with one another are based upon a narrative of forbearance rather than genuine partnership. Devolution is about "giving away" power (let's ignore for a moment, Enoch Powell's maxim that power devolved is power retained) which originates in the centre. The entire structure of that relationship looks at it the wrong way around.

The UK isn't undemocratic because Scotland votes one way while England votes another. If it is undemocratic it is so because it conceives of the state not as a repository for the power of the many peoples that comprise it, capable of withdrawal on demand, but of the source of power itself.

The reason I am voting Yes in this referendum is not because I want Scotland to "get the government it votes for"; it no more does this at Holyrood than it does at Westminster. It is because I want the relationship between the people and the state to change, and Scottish independence provides a constitutional moment, an opportunity, to begin to redefine that relationship. It is not the only path. It's not necessarily the optimal path. But it is the path of least resistance.

Friday, 14 February 2014

When Yes doesn't mean Yes? Er... no.

Headline: What can charitably be
described as "bollocks"
Today's Herald front page leads with the headline "Yes does not mean Yes". The byline claim was that "A Referendum Yes vote would not guarantee Scottish independence and the 'status quo' would be maintained if talks do not go smoothly, a senior coalition source has warned".

Explosive stuff. Cue Twitter going into a frenzy with Nats expressing mock horror at the suggestion that the UK government would not respect the result of the referendum and that Westminster was being bullying and abrasive and backtracking on its commitment in the Edinburgh Agreement.

Except, uh, that's not what they actually said.

Here's the direct quote, contextualised, from later in the article:

"Dismissing the SNP Government's 18-month timescale for completing negotiations as "totally unrealistic", the source said: "A Yes vote in the referendum would be the start of a process, not the end of one; we would start negotiations. But if Alex Salmond made impossible demands, we would not just roll over and agree to everything he wanted. If we could not reach agreement, the status quo would be the default option."

The senior coalition figure said one such impossible demand would be the First Minister's threat, repeated yesterday, that Scotland would not pay its share of UK debt if it were denied a currency union by Whitehall.

"It would not be a question of denying the wishes of the Scottish people. As the UK Government, we would have a duty to represent the interests of the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland" the source said."

What is actually being said is not that the UK Government will deny Scotland independence even if it votes yes. Rather what is being said is that the mere fact that the SNP have indicated a preferred Independence Day in March 2016 is immaterial in the event that critical aspects of the independence settlement cannot be agreed within the 18-month timescale. Absent the implementation of a scheme (which remember will require primary legislation from Westminster) the position being maintained is that the status quo prevails until something else is agreed.

Observe that, far from reneging on the Edinburgh Agreement, what is actually being said is pointing out exactly what it is and what it is not that the UK Government has committed itself to. In signing the Edinburgh Agreement, they have accepted merely that the referendum result will be respected: Yes or No. They have not accepted the SNP government's preferred terms of settlement and timetable will be respected or anything of substance asserted by the White Paper, which both postdates the Edinburgh Agreement and is a set of political claims made by the SNP who does not always have the gift to claim them. They have not agreed to sign up to a currency union. They have not agreed to initiate an EU Art 48 amendment to secure Scottish EU membership. They have not agreed to implement Independence Day by March 2016.

The other important aspect is to emphasise that, in the event of a Yes vote, the UK Government does not just have the right, but the duty to protect the interests of the citizens of the rest of the UK. If they arrive at the considered opinion that a certain settlement is neither something they are legally obliged to do, nor is it in the interests of the people they represent, they are dutybound not to accede to those terms, even if it is something that would benefit Scotland. This is how sovereign states interact with one another in the real world.

This may be an unpleasant truth for some on the Yes side, but part of the point of sovereignty is the pursuit of national interest. We expect the SNP Government to negotiate in the interests of the Scottish people, not the UK as a whole. Why should we expect anything different of those on the other side? At the point where the UK is to cease to include the Scottish people, it should cease to be accountable to them too. A fair settlement does not mean that Scotland or its negotiatiors get to dictate the terms of independence. Politicians of soveriegn entities adopting hard-headed self-interested approaches on behalf of their citizens isn't "bullying"; it's precisely what independence means.

What has been said here is actually eminently sensible. It is not that "Yes does not mean Yes" as the Herald have shrilly and recklessly misrepresented it. That is a squalid and pathetic attempt at journalism. It is that Yes does not mean what Salmond says it means just because it's what he wants. It doesn't mean that if unreasonable demands like not taking debt absent a formal currency union are made, independence will happen anyway within the prescribed timescale. Yes means Scotland will become an independent state after a mutually agreeable settlement is legislated for by Westminster. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Wanted to share the Sterling, but they said, No, No, No.

With the news that all three UK parties have ruled out a formal currency union in the event of Scottish Independence, the SNP have been dealt a blow to their credibility. For some time now, I've warned that a clear contingency plan needs to be in place in the event their preferred currency proposal (which may not in any case be the best option for Scotland post a Yes vote anyway) fell through.


This being the case, however, my instinct is that this move is driven more by a political calculation than an outright hostility to a currency union. By the time the UK Government is actually confronted with the question of a currency union properly, it has already lost its political bet on the referendum itself, and has nothing to gain from holding to a red line unless it is in any case in their interests to do so. The Treasury's analysis paper on the currency union indicated that it would come with a number of potential drawbacks for both countries, some of which were alluded to in Mark Carney's speech on the matter only a few weeks ago.

A currency union would almost certainly mean some set of formal restrictions on fiscal policy: tax and spending limits for at least Scotland and probably both states, and a completely new set of accountability mechanisms for the way monetary policy is exercised. It would also involve a clear set of rules regarding the circumstances in which a bank would be bailed out and who would bear the cost.

It is worth, at this point, debunking one of the myths perpetuated by the Yes side, that because the Bank of England is nominally independent, and no politicians sit on the Monetary Policy Committee, that it therefore is not in any way "influenced" by politicians, Scottish or otherwise. This isn't true. The Bank of England's remit in monetary policy, whether it is is the setting of the base rate of interest or deciding the level of quantitative easing, is determined by UK Government policy.

Their "independence" is in the freedom to work within an envelope of powers to meet certain targets set by the Treasury, subject to supervisory oversight by the Chancellor and regularly being called before the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee. In the latter case, Scottish MPs have the opportunity, as do any others, to interrogate decisions and to question them where there is the suggestion that policy is being determined by the concerns of, say, London's financial sector, to the detriment of other parts of the economy.

It is also worth bearing in mind that, with Carney's appointment, we have thrown into sharp relief the pretence that central banking is in any way apolitical, and that the Bank of England's MPC are but the humble enforcers of universally accepted technocratic standards. The debate about the appropriateness of the 2% inflation target, and the metrics used to determine what ought to be done in the short and long-term to establish the most appropriate interest rate policy, is one that is clearly influenced by and involves political institutions.

This matters, because it affects the answer to the following question: to whom is the Bank of England accountable? The SNP's proposal involves shifting central banking away from instruments of domestic law, accountable to Treasury and to Parliament, towards an instrument of international law, presumably accountable to two Treasuries and two Parliaments. This is different from the much looser arrangements Westminster has with places like the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and the Overseas Territories. They represent such a small proportion of economic activity transacted in GBP that they are scarcely able to influence the overall picture of what is, in monetary policy terms, in the interests of the Sterling area.

The same is not true of Scotland, which, among other things, is the second biggest trading partner with the rest of the UK. The need for these international arrangements make it less clear to whom or to what the Bank of England should be accountable and who, in practice, exercises control over deciding that question.

This is also why we need a much clearer account of what it means "to use the pound". It is meaningless to go around saying "it's our pound too" when it doesn't explain what is actually "ours". All currencies are ultimately just a denomination of the value of the assets held by a central bank. "The pound" as such, therefore, is an instrument of law, not an asset, as too is the corporate entity of the Bank of England. When the SNP talk about it being "our pound too" it doesn't mean anything. It is likely that we will be entitled to a share of the Bank of England's assets (or an equivalent sum settled in other assets) but this isn't the same thing.

Absent a currency union, we would be unilaterally adopting a currency of a country in a set of circumstances where we account for a not insignificant share of Sterling transactions, but with no political influence over the institutions setting monetary policy. This has the (indirect) effect of restricting our fiscal options, lacking a lender of last resort.

What may ultimately be a better back-up plan, now, is to use Bank of England notes as a reserve to set up our own central bank, and issue Scottish notes in a similar way that the Bank of England itself does at the moment. At least pegging to the GBP is our choice. It is worth pointing out that, contrary to what some more passive observers have suggested, the likes of Australia and South Africa did not "share" the pound with the UK, but had a distinct currency which they sought to peg until points that were ultimately well before independence. A currency peg, supported by an economy with a good balance of trade, thanks to oil and whisky exports, may in fact afford Scotland the real flexibility it needs, while also assuring international markets of its ability to pay its way.

A final note on the SNP's shrill response to the rejection of this currency union. It isn't "bullying" for the UK Government to prioritise the interests of rUK in considering whether a currency union is acceptable to them. There is no one else to represent rUK at the moment. It is no more "bullying" than the Scottish Government trying to bounce the Westminster Government in agreeing to a Treaty on a subject matter they don't agree with on details they haven't had sight of.

By all means, say it is empty rhetoric and tactics to dissuade voters, and that they would be in dereliction of duty not to re-assess the lie of the land post a Yes vote, but counter-threats of refusing to take a share of the debt are the stuff of the school playground. If an independent Scotland is to ensure a smooth transition into the international community, pissing off your biggest trading partner, who has a veto on your EU membership, and sending the signal to the global markets that you are a debt shirker on day one, is probably the worst way to go about it.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Death of Nuanced Debate

Binary choices make for polarised debates
Constitutional reform is something I care passionately about. There are significant problems with the way the United Kingdom looks to enable its people to govern themselves. I was converted to Scottish independence by a growing scepticism that Westminster was capable of reinventing itself and producing a credible approach for a new relationship between London and Holyrood. And yet I find myself utterly despairing at the argument and the attitude underpinning the Yes campaign. More than that, though, I find myself utterly scunnered with the way this debate is being engaged with, and the disrespectful misrepresentation and hostility being pursued by both sides.

Sturgeon v Carmichael - a Dirty Battle in a Disgusting War

Take this evening's Scotland Tonight debate. The general consensus of viewer and pundit alike is that Nicola Sturgeon defeated Alistair Carmichael and comfortably too. But she did so with a kind of politics and approach to debate that simply isn't worthy of a people answering difficult existential questions about their future. She constantly interrupted Alistair Carmichael before he could get a word in edgeways. She ducked and she dived several legitimate questions, including on the currency and European Union membership, engaging in irrelevant whataboutery (and sometimes, outright lies, for example that the currency is anything more than a legal instrument relying on Westminster statute applying to the United Kingdom).


Fudging Democracy

She trotted out tired lines about Scotland getting Tory governments "forced" upon it, ignoring the inconvenient reality that in 2010 it was Scottish votes that denied the Tories a working majority (or for that matter that more Scots voted for the Tories or for the Lib Dems in 2010 than for the SNP in 2011) and the fact that the SNP support decisions about Scotland being made by the European Commission and Parliament, bodies which respectively are not elected and in respect of which Scotland would have a SMALLER proportion of the representatives than the UK Parliament. She made no effort whatsoever to try to defend the central notion of independence, that it's not "getting the government we vote for" it's deciding who the "we" should be when we address particular challenges within our society.

Does she think that welfare is something on which better political consensus and delivery can be achieved through governments in Edinburgh or governments in Westminster? Does she think that international disputes and problems like climate change or EU decision-making or conflicts in the Middle East are better addressed through lots of Western states working loosely together through discrete actors in an intergovernmental organisation like NATO, or fewer, more integrated units in the same kinds of organisation? Are nuclear weapons more or less likely to be dispensed with in the context of Europe and further afield if Scotland works within the UK structures, or if it acts distinctly on the international stage? Those are the real questions that independence address, not a flippant "Scotland didn't vote for the Tories". She's already assuming that the answer to "who is the most effective actor" is *always* Scotland, without ever explaining why international organisations are different from the UK in this respect.

False Equivalence

She seemed more determined to "beat Alistair Carmichael" than actually to explain and defend the positions her government had adopted in the White Paper. She asked ridiculous questions of Carmichael, like what powers he could "guarantee" would come to Scotland in the event of a No vote. Of course he can't answer that! The proper way further devolution should be delivered is by way of a Constitutional Convention, involving multi-party discussions and input from civic society. There is no point in holding such a Convention just now, when it could be rendered redundant by a Yes vote, and since the Liberal Democrats do not comprise a majority of Scottish seats in any Parliament, it would be inappropriate for Alistair Carmichael to start dictating the terms of that process or the outcomes. He does not control the Scottish Labour Party or the Tories. The most he can do is to point her to Scottish Lib Dem policy, the detailed provisions for Home Rule set out by Ming Campbell. It's not his fault if she hasn't read it.

"But people are asking for the SNP to give answers to everything" comes the retort. Okay, so plenty idiots at BetterTogether have asked stupid things from dialling codes to Doctor Who. But that's not what Alistair Carmichael asked you. Engage him on his merits. He asked you not about "everything" but about things that either a) have to be decided in the event of independence, negotiated under their watch, as an exercise of sovereign power in the event of a Yes vote or b) serve as permanent structural limitations or opportunities to what an independent Scotland can do, irrespective of its internal democratic structure.

Misleading on the Currency

So the first example: currency and the EU are perfect examples of this. A Yes vote *triggers* a change in the legal relationship between us and international organisations and with the central bank of the United Kingdom. We therefore need to have an explanation what the people who will actually be negotiating on behalf of Scotland will do when they set up the framework of our independent state. We need contingency plans that properly articulate first of all what our preferred kind of structure is but then secondly what structure we would adopt in the event we were unable to reach agreement with other parties.

So if the UK Government says that it will agree to a currency union, but only with specific measures for fiscal oversight of an independent Scotland, what kind of fiscal oversight would the SNP tolerate and what kind oversight would it reject? If the UK insist on a level of oversight greater than the Scottish Government are prepared to accept, because it would impinge on our fiscal levers more than it benefits us in terms of things like transaction costs, what is their plan B? Will they unilaterally adopt the pound, without a lender of last resort? Will they create a central bank with a pro-rata share of Bank of England assets and issue a Scottish currency at par? We need to know that they've given proper consideration to the alternatives, many of which, incidentally, would be more in Scotland's interests than to enter into a potentially very inflexible currency union. The smart response would have been to say that it is more in the interests of rUK to have a currency backed by North Sea oil revenues than for Scotland to choose willingly to enter into a currency union, gaining only limited transactional benefits, when Scandanavian countries have enjoyed far more flexibility and strength when combining oil revenues with independent currencies, and that Scotland is being magnanimous by agreeing this interim arrangement, in respect of which fiscal policy would be carefully monitored across the UK to assuage the markets that both new countries could hold their own.

But what did Nicola Sturgeon do? She lied. She said that the pound is "Scotland's" currency and that we "own" it too. First of all, you can't "own" a currency. It isn't an asset. It isn't "property". Currency is just a legal instrument used (usually by a state) to facilitate exchange of goods and services, issued against the value of reserve assets held by a central bank. Now of course there will be negotiations about what happens to the assets of the Bank of England, just as with all the institutions that are arms of the British state in the event of a Yes vote. But the assets, though controlled and owned by those institutions, are DIFFERENT from the institutions themselves. Scotland does not "own" a shareholding in British institutions. That's just not how our state is structured. We are a (legally) unitary state, not some sort of multi-national corporation. There has to be a negotiation about the division of assets (again, not institutions) and liabilities precisely because independence is the creation of a new state from part of the UK's old territory, rather than a disaggregation of a clearly demarcated confederal union. By giving inaccurate information about the true situation, Sturgeon may have done enough to persuade the layman that Carmichael's arguments about a currency union weren't relevant or especially penetrating, but she debased the proper understanding of what it means to be independent and how that transitional process would operate.

Fudging the issues on the EU

Similarly on the European Union. Sturgeon promised (without really justifying it at all) that the process will be straightforward, and that it will be in the interests of the other members to go along with Scotland enjoying membership on completely protected terms as good as they are just now, with opt-outs and rebates in full. All Nicola Sturgeon had to do was admit that membership wouldn't be automatic, but that there would be significant trade and movement consequences that would harm the rest of the EU if they were not to respond pragmatically to the new situation. She could have pointed out that even if we didn't get an ERMII opt-out, that in practice the obligation eventually to join the Euro is unenforceable. She could have pointed out that imposing Schengen rules on Scotland would bring no rational benefit to anyone in the rest of the EU because, being an island rather than on the Continent, all travel arrangements to and from Scotland would still involve an air or sea journey, which still involve passport controls. She could have pointed out that it was in the interests of those in continental Europe and of the rUK to allow Scotland to have a Schengen opt-out and to be part of the Common Travel Area, because to do otherwise would benefit LITERALLY no one.

But she didn't. Instead she made misleading statements about Scotland "already being a member" of the European Union. John Swinney did the same on Newsnight half an hour earlier. Scotland is NOT a member of the European Union. It is a territory that just happens, at this moment in time, to be part of a member-state of the European Union. Sturgeon was hiding behind a lie that doesn't even help her case. Instead of tackling head-on the question about the terms of Scottish membership and what renegotiation would actually mean, which if played right would have been a thoughtful and intelligent dismantling of the real world consequences of the "uncertainty" of EU membership, she turned it into an "us and them" debate, trying to imply that the UK was trying to act contrary to Scotland's interests.

Scaremongering

The thing about these kinds of situation is that they do not have an actual comparator in the event of a No vote. The default position in the event of a No vote is the full provisions of the Scotland Act 2012 enter into force and Scotland gains, among other things, partial powers in respect of income tax and stamp duty land tax, beyond which anything that changes further will require the consensus of the political parties. Nicola Sturgeon mentioned that EU membership was under threat in the Union. No it isn't. If you vote No, there STILL has to be an outright General Election victory for the Tories or Tories with UKIP before an EU referendum is even remotely on the table. The Tories couldn't even win an overall majority in 2010, with 37% of the vote, and with the failure of the Boundary Reforms, the absolute best they can hope for is to be the largest party, which is still very unlikely. The idea that the UK's membership is under threat is ludicrous, and scaremongering straight out of the BetterTogether song-book.

And then there's the fearmongering about cuts to the block grant. The SNP cannot have this both ways. They complain that the funding formula is unfair because it takes inadequate account of what Scotland contributes to UK taxation by way of the oil revenues. Not only does this jar inconsistently with the more "redistributive" model of justice they sign up to for Scotland, but it also makes them completely hypocritical when they then complain that any (at the moment, tentative) moves to construct an alternative to Barnett based on need might lead to Scotland receiving slightly less, in order to balance out historical disadvantage to Wales and the North East of England.

Even to give effect to Scotland having more control of its own taxes, however, Barnett ultimately needs to be done away with. In the event of a No vote, the SNP will presumably argue that the Scottish Parliament still needs more fiscal powers, to control income tax, corporation tax and capital gains tax. But at the point Holyrood controls most of its revenue, the Barnett formula, ultimately a spending formula, thus neither particularly good at assessing contribution or need, simply has to be abolished. By refusing to engage with the alternatives to Barnett, and by painting it as a zero-sum game, they are actually making it more difficult, not easier, to bring about more control for Scotland over its affairs and more fairness in the way Britain is being run from a financial perspective.

The Real Challenge

And this rather goes to the nub of the problem with this debate. The sensible, constructive dialogue that is necessary to get a true consensus on constitutional reform, is being drowned out by some absolute drivel and a polarised discussion about what the real options are. Westminster is not going to turn around and significantly cut Scottish spending without a quid-pro-quo over revenue control, and it's not going to take powers back in the event of a No vote. That would be absolute suicide, would lead to another independence vote within 10 years and a landslide for Yes. But equally, the framing of this debate as a binary question has culled any hope of free, independent thinking about what independence really means for Scotland and what the nuanced alternatives could be if only people were less needlessly antagonistic. In the event of a No vote, the SNP have backed themselves into a corner whereby they have created a prophecy of doom for Scotland. We need to know that they won't make it self-fulfilling by sulking in the corner saying "I told you so" and to be sure that they will show a genuine commitment to more powers for Scotland, unlike how it was with the original Constitutional Convention.

To be clear, I'm not just criticising the SNP. The Unionist parties have had an appalling attitude towards Scotland in the last six years, refusing to work with the SNP in 2007 on a referendum, refusing to work with them on the National Conversation and designing their response to Scottish politics to "dish the Nats" rather than simply to produce a relationship between citizen, Holyrood and Westminster flexible to modern requirements and capable of projecting Scottish and British interests onto the international stage. They need to banish the absolute dinosaurs like Ian Davidson, and start to talk constructively about how the very idea of sovereignty can be reinvented in the British state, reshaping what it means to exist in a multi-national union and to question the very premise that nation-states are the most desirable state of being. They need to talk about direct representation of the devolved administrations in EU delegations. We need a more consensual approach to decisions about things like national security and the intelligence services. We need to trust the devolved institutions to have direct control over welfare decisions. We need to make them, and the councils below them, responsible for raising most of what they spend. Creating a governing structure rooted in the idea of accountability rather than asking to whom the buck can be passed and who else can be blamed for difficult policy and spending decisions.

My real worry is that Scotland, far from being betrayed by the Tories, will ultimately be betrayed by its two biggest parties. An SNP who have bet the house on a narrative that this referendum is all or nothing, and who will therefore have a stake in proving that, and a Labour Party who, when it even pays attention, wishes this referendum were about all or nothing and will treat it as such if they win. Scottish politics has been poisoned by this referendum and the politicisation of the most basic facts and legal realities about how we govern ourselves.

Donald Dewar spent most of the 1990s telling Ian Lang "to have some imagination" about the possibilities for the future of Scotland in the face of the UK Government's opposition to devolution. What we've been given is a choice between Labour's void of imagination and the SNP's delusion.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Not For Amateurs - My First Car

We drove out to the middle of nowhere. We met a nice elderly gentleman, whose knees were a little worse for wear. He opened his garage door. We gazed in awe. We exchanged a knowing look. This was the one.

Yep. That's right. At the age of 22, I've taken the plunge and bought my first ever car. And it's 15 years older than me. A red, rubber bumper 1976 MG Midget 1500.

The chassis and body are solid, the finish reasonably good, and the fundamentals under the hood in need only of a good service to get it on the road.

Photos below.