Thursday, 23 April 2015

What good is a nuclear deterrent that doesn't deter?

On Monday, the first of the East Renfrewshire hustings took place at St. Ninian's High School, organised by Eastwood Ecumenical Peace & Justice Forum. One of the issues that was raised was the question of the renewal or non-renewal of the UK's Vanguard submarines, the vessels that carry Britain's Trident nuclear warheads and which are based on the Firth of Clyde.

A lot of people have strong views on nuclear weapons. Some think it is inherently immoral to possess, let alone use them, while others think they are vital to our national security. This creates an unhelpful impasse, where there is little room for common ground.

It has long been my view that the question of the nuclear deterrent has to be looked at in more dispassionate and calculated terms than those of the current debate. Not to do this means that the deterrent is renewed almost by default, without giving proper consideration to the tangible defence advantage it purports to offer.

At the hustings, both Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy and Tory candidate David Montgomery described Trident as a "nuclear deterrent". It is almost taken for granted, even by those in favour of multilateral disarmament, that Trident is in fact a deterrent. I must confess, however, that I cannot see how this is the case.

The dilemma

I asked an admittedly multi-pronged and complicated question, but one that this ultimately boils down to. The question is this:

Is there a foreseeable or even plausible set of circumstances where:

1. The UK is prepared to fire a nuclear weapon at an enemy, AND
2. The US is not prepared to fire a nuclear weapon at the same enemy, BUT
3. The US is nonetheless content to permit the UK to fire a nuclear weapon at the enemy in question?

I suggested to the room that no such scenario exists. If I am right, then it also takes our enemies, current, future, real or hypothetical, no more than a matter of minutes to reach the same conclusion. If they don't think that any action they take will result in, but only in, a UK nuclear missile being fired at them or their people, then no actions, nuclear or otherwise, are deterred by having Trident-armed nuclear submarines. Put simply: it is not a deterrent. The game is a bogey.

Phantom threats

The response from both Jim and David was to insist that we do not have a crystal ball, and that we cannot know what kinds of threat we might face in the future. Well, fine, but by the same sentiment should the NHS stock an expensive vaccine for a pandemic-strength disease that has a 0.00000000001% chance of killing a million people, or should it spend the same money on something more likely to be called upon to save as many lives? Both Jim and David then admitted they could not think of the set of circumstances in which, hypothetically, the UK would fire a nuclear weapon.

Criteria for use

If anything, something that Jim went on to say simply strengthened the point. He said that the UK has a clear policy of adopting only a second-strike policy and that it would only fire a nuclear weapon against another nuclear power. This is, if you will pardon the pun, a "striking" admission. First, it narrows down the potential list of targets to Russia, the USA, China, France, Pakistan, India, North Korea, Israel and possibly Iran.

Given that Russia, the USA and China all have enough nuclear weapons to annihilate the UK it is reasonably safe to say none of their military activities are deterred by the possibility of Ed Miliband pressing the red button. Given their missile defence systems and the fact that Trident is US technology, it's actually fairly likely that a second strike attack, even if called-upon, would be intercepted, thus futile for what remains of the UK following such an attack. In the specific case of the USA, they actually service and make the parts for the UK's warheads, meaning our ability to use it as an independent deterrent is questionable at best.

The prospect that France would fire a nuclear weapon against the UK is so utterly ridiculous given the levels of military, diplomatic, economic and political cooperation between our two countries, as not to be worth a second mention. If Angela Merkel doesn't need nuclear weapons to stop France using their's against Berlin, neither do we.

India and Pakistan, only have nuclear weapons to re-enforce the principle of mutually assured destruction against one-another. Neither of these countries is going to attack the UK with a nuclear weapon in the next 30 years (remember, Vanguard subs are only going to take 17 years to replace) and the kind of geopolitical changes that would be required for this to be a plausible situation are such that the UK would be at the back of the queue in any decision by Western powers to deploy nuclear weapons.

North Korea: a country which lacks even the missile technology to hit the USA. If we are adopting a second-strike policy, they're never going to use a nuclear weapon against us, because they literally can't.

Israel: this one entails a combination of all the earlier sentiments. There is no way the UK would fire a nuclear weapon on Israel, nor indeed any plausible situation in which Israel would provoke such an attack from the UK but not one of USA, China or Russia too.

Iran: a country which does not actually have a nuclear weapon yet, but whose efforts to enrich uranium have led to talks, not with the British Government, but with the US Government. Even if they did get a nuclear weapon, it would be used, if at all, against Israel, and that would prompt US intervention, rendering the UK submarines irrelevant.

So there's the first problem: if you will only strike nuclear powers, there are no nuclear powers it is conceivably in the interests of the UK to strike, and especially not when it is a second-strike.

Outsourcing our deterrence

The glib response from Jim was to say that such an analysis "outsources" our nuclear protection to the United States. It does no such thing. The point is that the sheer scale and force of the US nuclear arsenal is such that the UK having these weapons is defensively trivial whether the US is friend, foe or otherwise.

The more complex claim, that we would be outsourcing Europe's nuclear deterrent from Putin, is similarly bogus. The US already uses Italy, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey to station several of its air-based nuclear weapons systems. A Russian attack of the scale and kind capable of triggering a British nuclear response, even assuming NATO has broken down as a political alliance, is one in which the US is prepared to use those weapons against the aggressor first.

It is not that getting rid of or failing to replace Trident would make us a sideshow in these conflicts. It is that we already are a sideshow and will be for as long as the US, Russia and China show no interest in eliminating their massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Is a nuke the best deterrent for a nuke?

Another claim made by Murphy was that just as conventional weapons deter conventional attacks, so too nuclear weapons deter nuclear attacks. This is wrong on several levels.

First, one of the major arguments in favour generally of nuclear weapons is that they deter certain types of mass conventional attack. Insofar as nuclear deterrence is a thing, he sidelined one of its speculative benefits.

Secondly, it does not follow that the best way to deter someone from using a nuclear weapon against your country is to have a nuclear weapon. What is more effective at stopping an Iranian bomb from being developed? A Vanguard submarine in the Atlantic with a Union Jack painted on it or an aerial strike-force that targets conventional weapons on uranium enrichment and other military facilities? Which one involves the fewer civilian casualties and less likelihood of global blow-back or escalation? The latter. Which one is cheaper? The latter.

There is a non-zero cost to investing in Trident. Even if we accept that level of military spending is necessary, there are more effective ways we could be spending that money. This is true whether we are dealing specifically with the question of deterring the use of nuclear weapons against us and our allies, or if we are talking more broadly about defence objectives. At the moment, the RAF is having to cannibalise Typhoons just to be able to make a respectable contribution towards international efforts against ISIS in Iraq. What is the point of being a nuclear power if we cannot intervene in global conflict zones that pose actual, serious, material threats to the security of our own people and those of our allies? This is the Defence budget equivalent of the NHS not bothering to stock the flu vaccination in order to pay for 600 police officers to attend the entrance of every hospital.

Multilateral disarmament

On the question of multilateralism against unilateralism, we get to the real nub of the argument. The last stand for someone who admits the UK will never use nuclear weapons but that we should nonetheless keep them or renew them, is that they can be used as a bargaining tool in non-proliferation negotiations with, especially, potentially rogue states like Iran.

Here's the problem though. The Iranians don't care about UK nukes. They care only about Israeli nukes and realistically want to barter only with US nukes. A similar analysis applies to North Korea. It simply isn't credible to conclude that whether or not the UK has a nuclear weapon is going to factor in any major way into those negotiations. If anything, the symbolism of the UK still having a nuclear weapons system is going to be political ammunition for any Iranian leader that walks away from talks or reneges on a non-proliferation deal.

The irrelevance of our weapons as a bargaining tool is only amplified when they are weapons that everyone knows we will never use. If they are reasonably confident that we will not use Trident against them, there is no reason why potential aggressors will see the reduction of UK arms as making them safer.

Too long didn't read?

If we are never going to use Trident except against a nuclear power as a second-strike option, we are never going to use Trident. Even if we could, our conventional responses would achieve the same military goals for fewer casualties at less expense.

If we are never going to use Trident, Trident is never going to deter a military action against us. If Trident is never going to deter military action against us, it does not add to our defensive capabilities.

If it does not add to our defensive capabilities, Trident shifts resources away from other military projects which do. If Trident shifts resources away from projects that add to our defensive capabilities, it is actively harming the safety of UK citizens.

Forget the morality of weapons of mass destruction. Forget even our obligations on non-proliferation in relation to international law. Trident, and indeed any UK nuclear deterrent, fails against its own criteria for success and prevents more successful ways of making us safer from being properly funded. That's why we shouldn't bother renewing it.

My challenge to Jim this week is to tell the voters of East Renfrewshire:

1. What military activities has the UK nuclear deterrent deterred since Trident was commissioned in the 1980s?
2. How remote, hypothetical and implausible must a specific kind of military threat be before we decide not to defend ourselves against it?
3. Can you name one country against which it would ever be in the UK's interests to use a nuclear weapon?

This post was published and promoted by Graeme Cowie (Scottish Liberal Democrats) at Burnfield House, Burnfield Avenue, Giffnock, East Renfrewshire, G46 7LT. The views expressed are Graeme's and his alone and do not necessarily represent those of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Getting your priorities right on tax

Warning: post contains lots of numbers
Whenever politicians start talking about the details of tax policy, I suspect the eyes of most of the electorate glaze over. Understandably. All they want to know is what it means for them and that it instinctively feels fair.

But the politics of tax is open to a lot of misrepresentation. Parties can use subtle ways of raising or cutting taxes that are not immediately obvious. The classic example of this was when Labour abolished the 10p lower rate of tax for low earners, effectively doubling their tax liability overnight as they were dragged into the 20p rate. They did this at the same time as cutting the then 22p rate of income tax to 20p, disguising a tax hike for the poorest behind a modest cut in tax for those on middle incomes.

It is sneaky tactics like this that give people a false impression as to which parties are standing up for those who need tax relief the most. In this election campaign the Tories have sought to steal and build-upon one of the biggest Liberal Democrat successes in this government. Our policy of raising the personal allowance meant that almost all full time workers have seen their income tax bill cut by over £800 in this Parliament. It has also completely taken the lowest earners out of paying income tax. This was a policy that David Cameron said in the Leaders Debate in 2010 was unaffordable.

Let's leave to one side the fact that Cameron's manifesto also included tax give-aways to some pretty affluent people, including a proposal to raise the inheritance tax threshold so that people with net worth of rather a lot more than the vast majority of people could be passed on less expensively to their children. Let's also leave aside that the Lib Dems managed to block that proposal.

What the Tories are now doing is to try to deceive people again, but this time by stealing our policy, with an important caveat. Like the Liberal Democrats, they want to raise the personal allowance up to about £12,500 and keep it roughly in range of a full-time minimum wage income. Raising the personal allowance to £12,500 would save most full-time workers about £400 in tax over the next Parliament each year. The Lib Dems propose to do it slightly faster.

The important caveat, though, is that the Tories also want to raise the threshold at which the 40p rate kicks in. Their argument is that if we don't raise the threshold from when people earn about £42k up to about £50k, the effect of inflation will be to erode the incomes of middle earners: people like senior teachers.

On the face of it, this might seem instinctively a good idea. Most people don't consider someone who earns under £50k to be extremely rich or part of "the 1%". Most people probably aspire to get a job that pays around that to provide a good quality of life for their family.

But here are a number of reasons we should not do this. First, we should observe that this policy benefits people who, nationally speaking, are actually earning quite a lot. The median household income, according to the ONS, is between £23k and £24k. That means that half of all households earn less than this before tax. For the non-retired it is still only slightly above £25k.

So that's a reality check: people who earn more than £42k are earning almost twice as much as most households. This isn't to say that they are rich, but they are not poor by any definition either. If you earn £40k you are in the top 20% of earners in the UK and if you earn £60k you are in the top 10%, according to the Treasury's tax return figures. The top 20% of earners in this country are not poor.

Secondly, these people on salaries of £42-100k are still going to be benefitting from the rise in the personal allowance. They're going to be getting £400 back. What the Tories are proposing is to raise the 40p threshold to £50k. That means that, in addition to getting the tax cut that all the low earners get, the Tories want to give them another tax cut. They are potentially giving earners of £50k or more a tax cut of over £800. That's not protecting middle income earners; it's pandering to them.

When incomes are growing as slowly as they have been in the aftermath of the recession, you really have to ask who most needs that extra money in their pocket. They could have used that money to give a National Insurance cut to low-paid workers. They could have raised the personal allowance faster, or higher, or both, benefitting the bricklayer at least as much as if not more than the banker.

No one is suggesting that we should soak the rich just because we can. There are genuine arguments that can be made about the efficacy of high tax rates on tax revenue: that's why the IFS is sceptical that Labour's plan to reintroduce the 50p tax rate will actually raise any money. When we tax the super wealthy we should be looking at what is most effective at making them bear a fair share of the burden. Moral grandstanding that harms tax receipts just makes it harder to protect the vulnerable from welfare cuts, as Osborne's £13 billion cuts plan proves.

But there is no evidence that "fiscal drag" is particularly harming the top 20% of earners in our country. There is also no evidence to suggest that keeping the 40p threshold roughly where it is will cause a reduction in tax receipts by discouraging enterprise or making people leave the country. When times are tough, we should concentrate gains, where possible, towards those who most need that support. To do that, your tax policies should focus on the personal allowance and the threshold at which NI kicks in. It should not focus on providing a double tax-break to the richest 10% of households.

If this seems like a complex piece full of numbers, I don't apologise. We need the detail to be open and honest about the choices we face in this election. If you want a tax-cutting party that focuses on the many rather than the few, your choice is not the Tories. It is the Liberal Democrats.

This post was published and promoted by Graeme Cowie (Scottish Liberal Democrats) at Burnfield House, Burnfield Avenue, Giffnock, East Renfrewshire, G46 7LT. The views expressed are Graeme's and his alone and do not necessarily represent those of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 - A Pause for Reflection

Every moment in life is precious in some respect, but for many, myself included, 2014 has taken on an added importance. In addition to the day-to-day challenges we all face, in Scotland, at least, we were also confronted with an existential question: one which energised, agonised and antagonised almost in equal measure. For me personally it has been one of the more difficult, but rewarding years of my life, and one which I can say at least has ended in a better place than it began.

I have a number of reasons to be grateful for the past year. After a tricky start to the year, I made some satisfying progress with my thesis, with two extensive chapters that, in the wake of the current constitutional debate, have become particularly relevant. I also took up teaching in the second half of this year, tutoring some 80 or so second-year law students in administrative law. This challenge is one I have greatly enjoyed, albeit it has been exhausting at times, and I hope I have been in some way useful for those students. If I have encouraged even some of them to persevere with public law despite its capacity to be turgid and esoteric, then I reckon I have done my job properly. Helping others to learn is a truly gratifying privilege and to have the opportunity means a great deal to me.

Parliamentary Club Leaders 2013-14
L to R: Hannah Gower, Duncan Crowe, me, Heather Whiteside,
Brian McCarthy

Outside of my academic pursuits, I have had a lot of fun debating this year. Firstly, I had a whale of a time giving my "Prime Ministerial" in GUU Parliamentary debating in January, where I enjoyed the support of a number of my predecessors and close friends. It also meant a great deal that my dad, a twice Glasgow graduate himself, was there to see it. What I found the most satisfying, however, was not my own personal success. It was, alongside the other leaders from last year, bringing through other debaters and helping them to develop and realise their potential. There is a real sense in GUU debating not just of doing well by ourselves, but also by others, and that we have a responsibility to pass on better than we ourselves inherited. I hope we lived up to that.

Somewhat to my own surprise, I became involved in intervarsity debating again too. I entered somewhat of a self-imposed absence from that form of debating after Berlin Worlds at the beginning of 2013, and had not expected to resume in any serious capacity. That changed in February when, having been roped into speaking at the Scottish Mace, and approached it initially as a bit of a laugh, Marc Fryer and I somehow ended up joining two other GUU teams in the final. It was the first time in a long time that I genuinely found that type of debating a fun experience for more than simply the competition.

Ljubljana IV Final
It re-energised me and motivated me first to trial for Euros and then to forge a hugely successful partnership with Heather Whiteside. We reached the Ljubljana IV Final and then broke 5th at the European Championships in the summer. It involved some hard graft, but towards the end we really started to work well as a team and I was happy that we managed to continue the success of Duncan Crowe and John McKee in the previous two internationals. There is a clear sense in which the momentum they have built for the current generation of GUU debaters has been sustained, vindicated most recently in the fantastic efforts of Owen Mooney and Chris Edgar in Malaysia, breaking 23rd. I wish them good luck in the New Year as they try to bring the trophy back to Gilmorehill.

GUU Freshers Week Independence Debate
After all the rigmarole of the independence referendum, including bizarrely ending up speaking in a debate with Tommy Sheridan (on the same side!) it is good to see a degree of normality starting to return to Scottish public life. I voted Yes in the referendum, with a very heavy heart, and confess I had to take a while to regain my composure after I left the polling station. Many described the referendum as a triumph for civic engagement, but for me, I did not feel that glow. The enormity of the decision has still divided our country and a lot of those conflicts will take some time fully to heal, but the process has been somewhat cathartic. We now have a process by which both more powers for Holyrood should be delivered and a political environment in which it will become progressively more difficult for people to sidestep the structural issues behind our constitutional malaise. I am glad that the referendum was not much closer than it was in terms of the result, as that would have made reconciliation and the pain associated with it much more difficult.

Zagreb Railway Station: the Journey Begins
Enough of politics. Perhaps most importantly, 2014 has been a year in which friendships have been sustained and flourished. It meant a lot to me to have many good friends coming back to the GUU in January to support me, but I have also forged a number of meaningful friendships in the last year or so with people who were previously only acquaintances. I had a great week travelling through Europe after Zagreb with Matteo Catanzano, visting places I had never seen before and being able to unwind, free from work and other pressures. Meaning in life is so often less what it is you are doing, but who you are able to share it with. I am grateful for the friendships forged this year and hope they last a lifetime.

I wish everyone, especially my friends and family, a fortuitous 2015. No doubt it will bring its own challenges, but if 2014 taught me anything, it is that our potential is so often constrained primarily by what we think we can achieve.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The confessions of an exasperated British federalist

Our future in our hands: which way is best?
If you had asked me four years ago what I thought of the idea of Scottish independence the scorn and incredulity on my face would have been apparent before you had finished the sentence. Of course I was against it. I saw it as parochial, superficial, divisive and really rather peculiar. I also, perhaps unlike most Scots, saw Britishness as an immutable characteristic of my identity. Why would I want to break up my country? What a ridiculous proposition! Moreover, insofar as Scottish independence was articulated, I heard it mostly from people of a distinctly left-wing disposition. Those who knew me then, or indeed now, would probably choke themselves in a fit of laughter at the notion that I would embrace a political movement with apparently socialist-leaning ideals. I can live with centre-right governments and aspects of my politics, particularly on economics, are specifically centre-right by most reasonable definitions.

And yet, on Sunday, and I found myself in a debate at the Glasgow University Union, sharing a platform with Tommy Sheridan, firebrand socialist of poll tax and perjury fame, arguing that Scotland should vote Yes on Thursday 18th September to Scottish independence. Though I argued vociferously for the benefit of the gallery (though not quite so much as Tommy did) my feelings ahead of this referendum are far from unequivocal. I confess whichever way Scotland votes I will feel uneasy about the implications of that decision.

Emotionally British, ideologically Unionist

Emotionally, I still consider myself to be British. If anything, this referendum campaign has given greater cause for introspection as to the nature of my Britishness than of my Scottishness. I empathise with people for whom this referendum feels like being made to choose between those two identities, especially given the inferences of some of the rhetoric of the Yes campaign. There is something seductive about the idea that a national identity, and I do think Britishness is a national identity, can grow and flourish out of overlapping, perhaps confused, incongruent and messy national and regional identities that are part of, but never wholly subsumed by, the nation they create.

For me, Britain, notwithstanding certain aspects of its past and the attitudes of a xenophobic minority in the present, has always been about the celebration and comfort of diversity, tolerance, and being an outward looking family who, though not always agreeing, can come together and understand one another in pursuit of a noble but humble purpose. Together we seek to do good by each other and to the rest of the world.

Further, I do not think that Britain oppresses Scotland or Scottishness. Scotland is a confident, vibrant and successful nation: one which stands tall in the world, through its culture, its sport, its far-reaching and ambitious diaspora, and its intellectual and political contributions to modern life. The nation of the Highland Clearances, received pronunciation and the Scotch cringe of which Scottish nationalists often speak is not the one I recognise as having lived in my whole life. Our eccentricities are not viciously suppressed by the British state. As Alex Salmond himself put it back in January 2012: "Scotland is not oppressed and we have no need to be liberated". We do not need the crutch of statehood to achieve great things and to express ourselves as a nation or as a people. We are already doing it within the Union and would do so in almost any set of circumstances.

I do not accept, as many Nationalists tell us, that Scotland will be punished or made to suffer if it votes No. On the contrary, devolution has coincided with arguably the most optimistic and hopeful period in Scotland's history. For all the painful impact of certain welfare cuts in the last five years, it is easy to forget that child poverty across various measures is down by more than a third in Scotland over the course of the last decade, in no small part thanks to the flexibility of devolution and the unity of purpose behind a number of measures pursued at a UK-wide level. There is clearly an appetite for Scotland to be responsible for more of its domestic affairs, but in a world where even the Tories are offering some more powers for Holyrood, that is hardly incompatible with being a Unionist.

I do not even think it is necessarily true, as the First Minister never tires of telling us, that the people best equipped to make decisions that affect Scotland are necessarily the people north of Carlisle, in isolation, all of the time. Sometimes I think the people who should be making the decisions about how government affects our lives should be a lot closer to home than that, and other times, more remote. I do not think it is necessarily true that just because the Conservatives are unpopular in Scotland, our current Westminster Government is therefore "illegitimate" in Scotland, or at least not simply because the majority of Scottish MPs are Labour.

I do not think, with the complex and integrated history of the nations on these islands, that it necessarily follows there are clear lines we can draw when deciding who "we" are politically. This could scarcely be more obvious when, as a European, I think sometimes Scotland should be bound by decisions made predominantly by representatives elected by the citizens of other states. I cringed when Alan Bissett said on the floor of the GUU Chamber that you should vote Yes if you think Scotland is a country and No if you do not, while simultaneously claiming this debate was not about nationalism. That seemed to me to be an absurd characterisation of what this referendum was about.

By all rights I should be a Unionist, heart, body and soul, and an ideological one too. Yet I find myself on the brink of marking an 'X' in the Yes box on 18th September and very unlikely to vote No.

Britishness is in crisis

The thing is, I find myself increasingly compelled to take the reasons I reject much of the traditional Yes case to their logical conclusion. Just as Scottishness does not need statehood to flourish and be successful, neither too should the ties of Britishness, or Unionism, need the trappings of statehood to exist and to flourish. Just as voting No does not mean Scotland is just a region, neither too does voting Yes mean Britain is not a nation, or at least it should not do. Are the No side really suggesting that that bond of family, of culture, of togetherness is so weak that it cannot endure a separation of our existing political institutions? That is not the Britishness that is part of me.

If Britishness really is that weak in its current form, and has become so dependent upon the crutch of its political institutions for its endurance, then it really is in trouble. The Union does not need patching up, or loosened, through simply more promises of incremental devolution. It needs completely rebuilt from the bottom up. Britain's lack of clarity of purpose is being exposed by an ironically disparate and divided movement, in the form of the Yes campaign, which has managed to suppress its own incoherence in pursuit of what it perceives to be a common goal.

Whereas the independence movement can externalise its existential bipolarism onto visible, real, and material harms, the Unionist movement, if indeed it is just a single movement, has no such luxury. On the contrary, it has become bashful, lest it be associated with a nutter fringe that has stolen the territory of British nationalism from the tolerant, open-minded, previously self-confident majority.

Structural reform is needed

For Britishness to find its sense of self again, and to strive confidently and independently of its political institutions, it needs first to reform those institutions. It has to do so in a way which enables the different components of its identity to grow and to complement one another, as our compound society faces up to challenges of an increasingly global nature. This means asking ourselves not just what powers are exercised by which political bodies, but what we fundamentally see those political bodies as being, who and what they represent, and what their relationship is between one another.

The problem with devolution is that it has failed to re-imagine the nature of the Union and of Britishness at all. Instead of articulating a new, cohesive ideal for how the nations of Britain mesh together, it brought together two very awkward bedfellows indeed. The political environment, cultivated mostly by the Scottish Labour Party, was distinctly Scottish nationalist in its nature.

Whether it was the Scottish Constitutional Convention with "the sovereign will" of the Scottish people or the fostering of the idea of "illegitimate" governments at Westminster, the justification for Scotland being the "self" in self-government carried with it the inference that Britishness was not the self, or that insofar as it was, it was only so to the extent that it was acquiesced to by Scotland. Perversely, this Scottish nationalist political sentiment was welded to the structures of a unitary state. Whatever the political reality of divided powers, there was no attempt to re-invent a sense of the British constitution or the Westminster Parliament, and all its trappings and tradition of supremacy.

Devolution even took a legal form that varied little from the colonial relationships arrived at in places like Australia and Canada in the 20th century. Power devolved is at least notionally power retained. We should be clear that Scotland is no colony: it is a partner with democratic representation and influence on the British state. But devolution is a Frankenstein's monster that attempts to marry two existentially incompatible visions about the relationship between the four nations and Britain. It says that domestic governance in the Celtic nations should be conceived of as unrelated and tolerated anomalies to otherwise homogeneous Britishness.

The absence of a distinctively English voice or set of voices merely serves to accentuate the sense in which these are anomalies and re-enforces the idea that Britishness is really Englishness, and if not a threat to, then at least incompatible or ill-fitting with, Scottishness, Welshness or Northern Irishness. Yet the politics of those devolved institutions are distinctly Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, albeit to varying degrees. They are not British in a positive sense, and are defined by what they hollow-out from Britain as a political entity. We cannot have a coherent, confident and positive British identity for as long as England is so unsure of itself. It does not know who and what it is in clear contradistinction to Britain. It is this tension that makes those who consider themselves to be "Scottish not British" think that Britain and Britishness poses a threat to the idea of Scotland as a strong and confident political voice.

What we have needed for decades is a series of political and constitutional relations that clearly conceive of Britain as a partnership of nations and regions, rather than the slow and irreversible demerger that devolution represents. Even if Scotland votes No and more powers are given to the Scottish Parliament, they will not put this issue to an end. The fundamental structure remains in place. The conflict of a unitary British state still jars, arguably more so, with a Scottish people that increasingly see themselves not just as a primary, but ever more so an exclusive, political community.

Reinventing the Union

Put simply, only a form of federalism can save Britain as an idea and free it from a political system that satisfies few and exasperates many. To achieve such a structure, we need to rekindle the idea that the Union is in fact a relationship between nations and that Britain is a mutually supportive by-product of that interaction rather than the means by which one nation is seen, even if inadvertently, to dominate the others. We need to create a set of circumstances in which "Scottish not British" people see the Union as a partnership of equals, facilitative of Scottish (and English, Welsh and Northern Irish) self-confidence and influence in the wider world.

Such a partnership, I regret, will unlikely be achieved in my lifetime within the Union we have now. Notwithstanding the best intentions of Liberal Democrats, whistling in the wind about federalism for well over a century, there is no appetite for English devolution, either as a nation or into discrete regional Parliaments. The whole concept of the "West Lothian Question", where the votes of Scottish MPs determine policies that affect only England, is borne out of the idea that Westminster is really England's Parliament writ a little larger.

If the Scots wanted control over their domestic affairs, they are expected to achieve the acquiescence of Britain as a whole to set up their own Parliament. If the English want control over their domestic affairs, their only proposed solution is to find a way forcibly to remove the Celtic nations from certain decision-making at Westminster. This is, in effect, what the "English Grand Committee" or similar proposals like "English Votes for English Laws" would do.

To achieve federalism, we need a rapid and full-blooded awakening of an inclusive form of English nationalism or of English regionalism. We need a system in which the nations share and integrate resources and institutions not because of inertia, because it has always been that way, but because of affirmative consent: a sense in which they have deliberately come together in pursuit of a common goal. Those goals have to be defined by the nations as they are in the 21st century and not the increasingly irrelevant ideals of what held us together in the past. It is not enough simply to say that you are a Unionist: we need to know what Union it is of which you are a Unionist.

This was no more obvious than in what Drew Smith, Labour's constitutional spokesman, said at the debate on Sunday. He said the reason there was not a third option on the ballot paper for "enhanced devolution" or whatever was because "before we decide on the rules of the club we have to decide whether we want to be a part of the club." This psychology has the concept of a Union completely the wrong way around. The constitutional debate is not just about the minutiae of the rules of the club. It is about the fundamental terms on which the club can be said to exist at all. We cannot say whether we want to be part of the club unless we know the basic assumptions on which the rules are drawn up.

From Federation to Confederation

And so, this Unionist found himself increasingly coming to the conclusion that the only way to save Britain might yet be to break the state that sustains it. To save Britain from itself, it needs shocked into a type of constitutional reform that not even the mere threat of a Yes vote has initiated. With every panicked statement about further powers, whether Devo Max, Plus, Light, Full Fat, Turbo or Supercharged it becomes more and more obvious that the current crop of Unionist leaders do not know how to reinvent the Union. They are so wedded to making this Union work that they may already have lost the opportunity to preserve a Union of any meaningful description.

Perversely, Alex Salmond's vision for an independent Scotland or at the very least a UK-wide version of his devolution max alternative, if advocated by someone who had at heart the intention to save Britain, would come close to a kind of partnership of equals, or at least set it in motion. It would not be a federation, a state of states, as such, but it would be a kind of confederation.

The different communities of the United Kingdom, and potentially even the Crown Dependencies, could have entered into an international compact of mutual support, sharing a travel area, a currency, a titular Head of State, a codified constitution of sorts enunciating common fundamental freedoms and the terms of their co-operation. They could have drawn inspiration from the European Union and created a form of supplementary "British citizenship", conferring political and social rights on the members of the participant nations, islands and territories.

They could have an integrated approach to defence and diplomatic affairs, albeit one based on principles of consensual collective action rather than unilateral brow-beating. We could have developed a clear principle of subsidiarity, encouraging all four nations to recognise the special cultural, historical and political identities of our island communities and England's minority nations and regions like Cornwall and Yorkshire. This would give people throughout these islands real democratic control over the every-day decisions that affect their lives, with most of the advantages of pooling resources when it was in their mutual interests.

The dilemma is that Alex Salmond, most of his followers and most of the Yes movement, do not share, in their heart of hearts, that vision of a British Confederal Union. On the contrary, the reasons they have for wanting a currency union, to share the Head of State, and to be part of the Common Travel Area, are purely instrumental. They want to avoid scaring the horses by convincing those who are "Scottish not British" or "more Scottish than British" that not much of their day-to-day life will change. They know that, in the absence of a big idea for a new Union their opponents can passionately and wholeheartedly believe in, their primary obstacle to independence is fear of the practical consequences and not Scotland's sense of Britishness.

The gamble for me, and I suspect for a fair number of Scots, is whether to put faith in the political class that has systematically and repeatedly failed to articulate a vision for a new Britain in the 21st century just one more time to get it right, or to take this opportunity to put the Union as we know it out of its misery and try to build something new. I have tried throughout this campaign to find the confidence in Westminster to be radical and inventive, but I feel as though I have waited in vain. All that is left for me is either to vote Yes on Thursday or to spoil my ballot and declare a plague on all of their houses.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Taking Responsibility

Those who have followed my previous utterances on Scottish independence will know that I am sceptical of a lot of the rhetoric and claims made by the SNP and the Yes campaign. I don't describe myself as centre-left, unlike, probably, most politically active Scots in that movement. I don't consider myself to be a nationalist, even of the civic variety. I don't agree with many of the claims of either campaign that Scotland will be a significantly more or less prosperous society if it becomes independent. I don't even agree that we will be a noticeably more equal society if we become independent.

A common argument I hear, with which I have considerable difficulty, is the suggestion that we should vote Yes to create a more equal society. We are told that the policies of the Tories, especially on welfare, are strongly opposed by Scotland and that we need to control welfare to build a society that adequately protects the most disadvantaged. It seems superficially attractive. It is true that the two parties Scotland votes for most strongly, the SNP and Labour, do adopt a less hostile attitude, in terms of rhetoric and with respect to some specific policies on the question of welfare than do the Tories. This does not, however, appear to translate into actual attitudes towards welfare. When polled on actual policies, the majority of Scots support welfare to work programmes of the kind pursued by Westminster, would reduce access to benefits for immigrants, have very similar attitudes towards immigration as the rest of the UK and only very slightly register as more left-wing on whether taxation should be higher to fund more public services.

This is important, because central to the rhetoric of the Yes campaign is that we need independence to be able to make different decisions from the Westminster government "that we didn't vote for". If our attitudes towards actual welfare policies are broadly the same as the British electorate as a whole, however, how do they suppose we will vote for different policies in an independent Scotland? Sure, we vote for parties that are more left-wing under the current settlement, but we never think to ask why that's the case given how apparently similar we are on social attitudes.

I think I know why this dichotomy exists. Scots have come to think of themselves as being more left-wing because, as a polity, they have not really been given the responsibility for making decisions about how they respond to global challenges. Whereas many other nations, which by no particular moral reason have come to become our default political communities, have had to face up to the challenges of interdependence and the fiscal constraints that a global market place on what our governments can do, Scotland has not been confronted with those decisions. Its primary experience of global capitalism, of modern challenges to managed economies, and the ability of the state to provide, with ease, for all, has been to see a political elite from outside take those decisions. That political elite never really had to rely on the Scottish political community to address these problems, so Scotland was never really a part of that discussion. It's not just that the Tories introduced unpopular policies in Scotland, culminating in the Poll Tax; it's that in the centralised British state the winning coalition required neither the hearts nor the minds of middle Scotland, whether they were a Tory or Labour administration.

The consequence is that Scotland has identified the blame for the negative consequences of these global forces with Westminster, despite them being phenomena over which any government can exercise only limited control. Scottish politics has, culturally, served to blame the British state, the British establishment, for all the negative aspects of their current predicament. As a polity, we have learned to associate anything that is difficult to solve as being easy to solve if it weren't for a malevolent Westminster. As a nation, as a polity, we have never been confronted with these decisions, and we have never taken the responsibility for the consequences.

In this respect, devolution was only a partial answer. It gave us responsibility for how money was spent, how to run our schools, our healthcare system, our Universities, our transport network, our justice system and the like. On the relative virtues of how money was spent, we got a taste of that responsibility. Yet we continued constantly to compare ourselves to Westminster. "Look at how we don't have tuition fees/prescription charges/expensive personal care for the elderly" we would say, triumphantly. "Look at how this power has meant we don't have to do things like Westminster!".

And in the areas where we didn't have power, especially in welfare, we insist that all of our ills would be solved if only we voted for independence: "we did this with devolution, look what we could do if we get away from Tory governments". We can scrap the bedroom tax! We can be more compassionate! Aren't we wonderful?

All the time, we have taught ourselves to associate everything that is done well with ourselves, and everything that is done badly with the external: that which we don't control. Yet without the responsibility for raising the lion's share of what it spends, the entire culture of the Scottish Parliament in some respects made the national psyche worse. If there wasn't enough money for colleges, it's Westminster's fault because of the block-grant and the Barnett formula. If we didn't have a cancer drug fund, it was Westminster's fault because of austerity.

Seldom does it seem to occur to Holyrood that the reason we might not be able to spend on certain policies is because we have chosen to allocate resources to other things. It seems we are content instead always to find someone else to blame. We abdicate responsibility by suggesting the limits on what we can achieve are external, but only to ourselves and not to governments with just a bit more power. This responsibility deficit that plagues Holyrood may to some extent be mitigated if the Scottish Parliament gets real control over income tax and some other taxes. But in many respects, the cultural damage has already been done.

I often hear a characterisation that Scotland is "too wee, too poor and too stupid" to be an independent country. Ironically enough, I hear it more from Yes supporters misrepresenting the views of No voters than I actually do from No voters themselves. I suspect that if Scotland is too wee and too stupid, it's been helped in no small part by a rhetoric and a political culture that defaults to blaming others for our predicament.

This is one of the reasons I am sympathetic to independence. It has reached a stage in Scottish politics where the only way we can grow up, be mature about the challenges that face us, and to stop blaming others for the ills in our society, is to take responsibility for ourselves. Not because we will necessarily do a better job, but because having to take those decisions for ourselves will change the way we think about how those decisions are made. When it comes to things like welfare, the Scottish debate will actually have to be about our older population, a pensions timebomb, and structural unemployment. No more can it be about blaming the legacy of "the Tories" or "Westminster". We will have all the powers at our disposal so there can be no excuses. When we fail, they will be Scottish failures, and we will better understand ourselves and our society through those failures.

There is a learned helplessness in Scotland. We project our own failings onto the British state because, all too often, we haven't the courage to face up to them. I suspect independence just might change that.