Wednesday 12 December 2012

Equal Marriage - Contact your MP

My MP John Robertson (Labour) - are
you in support of equal marriage?
Please check the Coalition for Equal Marriage website to find out if your MP has indicated how they intend to vote on the extension of marriage to include same-sex couples in England and Wales. If they have not publicly ventured their opinion, please write to them and ask them to publicly state their support for Equal Marriage, or otherwise state their reasons for not doing so. I noticed today that my MP has not made clear his intentions, so I contacted him using this website and hope to receive a reply soon. I also asked him to take action to ensure proper representation of transgender issues in this new piece of legislation, something regrettably and all too easily neglected when dealing with these questions. What I said is included below.

Dear John Robertson,

I write to you both in a personal capacity as one of your constituents and in my capacity as President of Glasgow Liberal Youth and Glasgow University Liberal Democrats. As you will be aware, the House of Commons will be voting on a Bill which proposes to extend marriage to same-sex couples, both for civil ceremonies and for certain religious ceremonies (but in the latter case only where that religious denomination is not banned from doing so and where they wish to do so, thus not compelling any unwilling celebrant).

Although this legislation does not apply to Scotland, which is dealing with this matter through its devolved institutions, this is fundamentally a question of civil rights, and the recognition in England of same-sex marriages entered into by people in Scotland and vice versa remains a very important issue, especially given that it is quite common for people to have family both sides of the border.

As I understand it, you have not made your views on this matter public, and groups such as the Coalition for Equal Marriage are unaware of your voting intentions. It is a matter of vital interest for your constituents, many of whom will be an LGBT minority group that we know your intentions on this matter, so that they may maintain confidence that you stand firmly in support of their civil rights. I was hoping, therefore, that you could confirm both to me and publicly, that you intend to support these new measures when they come before a vote in the House of Commons, so that we can make the whole United Kingdom a more free, more fair and more equal society.

I have an additional concern I would like you to raise with the government at Westminster in relation to this legislation, insofar as it affects those seeking to have a change of gender recognised under the Gender Recognition Act 2004. As things stand, if someone seeks to change their gender and they are in a marriage or a civil partnership, that "contract" ceases to be valid, since both marriage and civil partnerships expressly exclude (under law) same-sex and opposite-sex composition respectively. If the opportunity is available to you, please ensure that an amendment is put in place that guarantees that no marriage or civil partnership will become invalid by reason of gender reassignment. In practice this may require that civil partnerships are extended to heterosexual couples, or that civil partnerships are to be abolished and all existing such partnerships converted into civil marriages.

If you could possibly attend to these matters I should be most grateful.

Yours sincerely,

Graeme Cowie

Sunday 9 December 2012

Scotland's Free Tuition Scam

Yes. That's right. Scotland's student funding model is fundamentally disingenuous. The profoundly political decision to impose no notional or actual levy on the tuition component of University study for Scottish domiciled students is a move which only serves to help those with relatively affluent parents. This might seem anathema to the great body of "progressives" within Scotland, but it's true. And here is why.

Student debt is not real debt in the UK. Under both the Scottish system (where you receive a student loan from the Student Award Agency for Scotland) and the English system (where you receive a student loan from Student Finance England) you are given that support on fundamentally different terms from a normal loan. You repay in proportion to your income, pay nothing for earnings under a certain threshold, and your debt is written-off by SAAS or the SLC after a fixed number of years. The particulars are as follows:

So it's not a real debt in the sense that it will not affect your credit rating (or eligibility from a mortgage). It is recovered from you in a very similar way to income tax, and might be seen as somewhat of a time and contributions limited graduate tax.

What about maintenance debt?

The next thing to look at is how much debt students will actually take on. The common component of debt north and south of the border is maintenance debt, which is the component of maintenance support that is a loan, rather than a grant. The two schemes offer broadly similar levels of support. The only significant differences are that bursary support in Scotland falls away far more sharply (no bursary support for those from households with incomes higher than £35kpa, compared to the English system, which hits that cliff at £42kpa), and that English loan support for those from high-earner families (more than £55kpa) is noticeably lower.

There is also a slight additional weighting for students studying in London, which over three years would add about £6.5k to the maintenance component of the total debt owed to the Student Loans Company. I have included two tables below, the first coming from the SAAS website, and the second is from (but is a derivative of a table from the Student Finance England website) which demonstrate the broad equivalence of the two maintenance schemes.

There are several things to take into account at this stage. English Universities typically operate 3-year undergraduate courses, whereas Scottish Universities operate 4-year programmes. The typical maintenance debt arising from being a Scottish student at a Scottish University, therefore, will be higher than for an English domiciled student in an English University. A Scottish student will accrue somewhere between £18k and £22k debt in maintenance, whereas an English student will accrue anything between £10.5k-£16k in maintenance debt.

What about tuition debt?

The next step is to consider the impact of tuition debt. English Universities may charge anything between £6kpa and £9kpa for their courses. This adds between £18k and £27k to a three-year undergraduate debt. For generosity of comparison, we will assume £9k fees across the board, giving the typical debt on graduate in England a total of between £37.5k and £43k. Superficially this seems like a massive difference. Notionally, English domiciled students going to English Universities are in twice as much debt as their Scottish counterparts. But what do they actually pay back?

This is the point when our first table really begins to matter. Those going through the Scottish loans system have to start making contributions back when they are earning considerably less money, and under the new funding arrangements, will only have their remaining debt written off after 35 years, compared to the 30 under the new English scheme.

So what do people actually repay?

For a Scottish graduate, if they earn about £16k as their starting salary, and their average salary over 35 years is about £22k over the course of 35 years (in today's money), they will have to pay back their student loan virtually in its entirety over that period. In other words, they will have paid about £18-22k to the SLC in exchange for their whole university experience. Virtually every student earning over, on average, £22kpa in Scotland will repay their loan in full. The only meaningful difference is that higher earners will pay it off a lot more quickly. By way of example, someone with 35-year salary average of about £35k in today's money will have paid off their student loan within 11-12 years.

For an English graduate that earns the same amount, they will start paying their loan back a lot later (because of the higher repayment threshold) and when they do, their payments will be smaller. This, combined with the 30-year write-off, makes it even less likely that an English graduate will repay their loan in full. If they earned the same amount as the low-earning graduate above (£16k starting salary, £22k career average) they would repay... £2700 in today's money. Yes. That's right. About 13.5% of what the Scottish graduate pays. The amount that is actually repaid then continues to rise the more successful the graduate is.

The tipping point (i.e. the point at which the two schemes lead to you actually paying back roughly the same amount) is when someone has 30-35 year average earnings of about £28500 in today's money, or roughly the equivalent of someone who gets a career starting salary of £22k. From that point onwards, it is absolutely true to say that English students at English Universities will be paying more. The peak cost under the English system will fall on earners with career average salaries at around £50k in today's prices, and they will pay about £75-80k towards the cost of their education if they took a £9kpa course.

But what can we learn from this?

What does and doesn't matter?

There are a number of important lessons we can draw from this comparison. Firstly, it is virtually irrelevant for modest graduate earners (those earning up to £28500) whether they are or are not charged tuition fees. The fact that maintenance loans and tuitions fees are combined under the same loan for repayment purposes means that one type of debt is indistinguishable from the other.

It also means that the terms of repayment matter a lot for all income brackets. The level of maintenance support north and south of the border is broadly equivalent in terms of the up-front support it gives to students to live-off. It is certainly the case that the schemes are not identical, and that both countries (but especially England) could show greater regard to the difference in living costs from city to city. What we see though, is that maintenance delivery has a much bigger impact on what Scottish students have to pay back than it does for English students.

This matters from the perspective of allocation of resources as well, however. In both absolute and relative terms, Scotland's system demands a greater direct contribution from graduates earning typical graduate salaries. This can be attributed almost exclusively to the repayment threshold that is applied, but also to some extent to the 35-year write-off period (for extremely low-earners). Further, we should consider what kind of student is most likely to take out a maintenance loan in the first place.

Who is most affected by debt attaching to maintenance rather than fees?

Students more likely to take out maintenance loans are those who a) come from less affluent families b) are living away from home and c) do not have an alternative source of revenue. Though it is certainly true that the loan component of the maintenance payment is lower for lower earners (under both systems) it is only marginally so. In practice, this means that the children of the affluent in Scotland are less likely to need or seek support from the loans system in the first place, and in consequence will be called upon to contribute absolutely nothing towards its upkeep over and above the general taxation burden they face, which is identical north and south of the border.

Now clearly it's a bit of a false economy even if these affluent students continue to take out these loans. One classic strategy of students was to take out the maximum (interest-free) loan and to place it in a high-interest savings account before repaying in full without penalty. That scheme is broadly circumvented nowadays by very low savings rates and in England by the closer-to-commercial interest rates on the loan amount, but what they're paying back is broadly what they took in terms of maintenance.

Redistribution: when does more of it happen?

Self-styled progressives, left-wingers, social liberals etc. should ask themselves whether such a system really improves access and tackles inequality to a meaningful extent. The Scottish student support system, particularly now that the SNP have reduced the bursary component, is less redistributive than the English student support system. By charging fees, you do two things. Firstly, you make it far more likely that the children of the affluent will tie themselves into the contribution system. They are more likely to take the calculated gamble that their earnings post graduation will not be high enough to make it worth their while having their parents pay it up-front. If they are, by the time they notice, they'll be sufficiently affluent as it will make little material difference to them. Secondly, by charging above RPI inflation for higher earners, you facilitate a far greater redistributive effect, lowering the burden for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and low graduate earners. This has the effect of making the disadvantaged not simply better-off in terms of the education you provide them, but also in raw cash-terms as well, given their maintenance benefit far exceeds what they pay back in terms of loans.

What are our real options to increase access to University?

University of Glasgow
The real lesson in this, however, is that access to education is not determined by the notional price-tag of that education, but by the manner in which that burden is levied upon society. For as long as we tolerate part of student maintenance taking the form of a loan, we have no principled objection to university tuition fees. There is often a call for a return to grants-only systems, but we have to bear in mind that they were possible back in an era when 5-10% of school-leavers went to University. Now that figure is closer to 40-45%. If we are serious about removing all loan components from tertiary education, we have to explain, in explicit economic terms, how we are going to pay for the maintenance of that extra 30-40% of school-leavers. This system also has no regard to the relative lack of part-time and post-graduate state support in Scotland compared to England, funded out of fees. Post-graduate degrees, in particular, receive very little (if any) state loan support, meaning that they are only accessible to those who are affluent or can find an external source of support. Our real options are to increase taxation yield (successfully) or to reallocate considerable expenditure from elsewhere.

Our choice is that, or that we admit considerably fewer students to University. Alas that probably is not a silver bullet either. Unlike 30-40 years ago, we no longer have the option available to us to allow a large number of school-leavers to go straight into apprenticeships or work. As things stand youth unemployment is considerably higher than unemployment as a whole. The demand is increasingly for skilled workers, and that means preserving more of our Further Education Colleges for those who cannot or do not want to entertain an academic or professional career.

Short of a revolutionary and mass-scale redistribution of wealth of the like we have never seen, the most progressive option available to us seems to be to ask successful University graduates to contribute more over and above our progressive tax system. It is in this context that free undergraduate tuition for Scots domiciles is a con. Not only does it not actually make University cheaper for our students, but it also makes it less accessible to the disadvantaged than could be achieved with a tuition-based funding model.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Speech to Scottish Lib Dem Conference

Not long back in the door after Scottish Lib Dem Conference and the follow-up Liberal Youth Scotland event in Edinburgh. Major news includes the formal approval of the Home Rule Commission headed up by Ming Campbell. I make little secret of the fact I support going further than the party, up to and including independence, but felt I had to support the proposals of the Home Rule Commission as they are a significant improvement on the status quo or what is being offered by others in the event of a "No" vote in 2014. Here is what I said:

"When we commissioned this report last Autumn Conference, I warned against two things.

Firstly, I feared it would leave us in a state of limbo on the constitutional question, stating unequivocally that the party opposes independence, but not doing enough, while we waited for the report, to demonstrate to the Scottish people we were not content with the status quo. I think we must acknowledge that in the past 12 months we have spent rather too much time 'doing down' the SNP, much though there is to criticise, and not enough distinguishing our attitude from that of Labour and the Tories.

My second concern was that the Commission would remain behind the curve of Scottish public opinion, failing to build enough on the work of Lord Steel some six years ago. On that point, I am pleasantly surprised. Ming has prepared an ambitious cocktail of new law-making and financial powers, which would give Scotland the kind of autonomy enjoyed by other sub-state units across Europe. Though this 'fiscal federalism' is not my ideal preference, it represents far more substantial progress than the Calman Commission.

Few fair-minded Scots would reject these powers in the event of a 'No' vote in 2014. Nevertheless, I feel we should keep an open mind to going further. Full fiscal autonomy would give Scotland the tools that it needs to secure a more liberal and socially just society. Does it really make sense, for example, for Holyrood to be responsible for health issues like addiction, but not control the drugs laws or alcohol and tobacco taxes in Scotland? Where is the logic in retaining welfare matters, like housing benefit, when the Scottish Government is responsible for the provision of social housing?

In a similar vein, I strongly support the review of the Barnett Formula. For too long the ability to deliver a federal relationship in the UK has been constrained by the structural flaws of ad hoc devolution.

To give proper effect to that, of course, we need a codified constitution. This presents an opportunity for us to commit the UK not just to decentralisation, but to human rights and social justice too. We need our own equivalent of the fundamental freedoms protected in perpetuity in the US constitution, rather than leave such important things to the whims of back-bench Conservatives who would repeal the Human Rights Act. It cannot be right that we give our UK Parliament unlimited power to trample on our liberties.

This is a once in a generation opportunity to write a constitution, whether for a federal UK or an independent Scotland. It is a chance to restate the values of our nation. To make sure this happens, Lib Dems must be prepared to work with all parties, including the SNP. For this question, as Donald Dewar put it, 'is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are and how we carry ourselves'.

I support this motion, and urge you to do too."

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Conference is about Democracy - let Yes Scotland in

The Liberal Democrat tradition is a proud one when it comes to democracy. We don't just value it as a system in the wider political arena, whether in response to Scotland's democratic deficit in the 1980s and 90s, or to reform of the Westminster institutions and electoral systems. We do genuine internal party democracy too. Just look back at our week in Brighton, where journalists and commentators alike continue to be perplexed by just how intensely relaxed our leadership are about us openly discussing things from assisted death, to the government's troubled civil liberties agenda and even the economy. We are a party who believe that disagreement, debate and deliberation creates a more open politics generally produces better outcomes.

Herald article (online, retrieved 3rd October 2012)

That's why it annoyed and saddened me to see an article in yesterday's Herald online edition (and presumably the main paper too) reporting a story that the Scottish Lib Dems had rejected an application from Yes Scotland to have a stall at our conference, on the same commercial terms as other organisations who frequently pitch up at Dunfermline once a year. The public statement from the Lib Dems was to the effect that as a party we don't support independence, and the article in question had overtures that we had suggested insufficient spaces were available to accommodate them.

At the basic level, I doubt there was ever a serious issue with capacity. Having been at the Vine Centre for last year's Autumn conference, I see no reason why a solitary additional stall could not be worked into a floor plan. The reason, therefore, seems to be a question of political messaging.

I can understand a political party wanting to be able to push its own policy platform. We have the Home Rule Commission reporting to Scottish conference, and Scottish Lib Dem HQ will no doubt be keen to push that, firstly as an alternative to independence, but secondly to differentiate us from those on the No side who have little to offer Scotland other than more of the status quo. But rejecting Yes Scotland's approach to be involved in our internal debate (and their money!) strikes me as evasive towards the democratic principle and not a particularly liberal way of engaging with the debate either.

Even if this perception that Yes Scotland was trying to trip us up were true, they are more likely to get favourable press attention complaining of a shut-out just outside the Vine Centre with a handful of activists than they are with a pretty mundane stall at a party conference where, if I'm honest, most attendees will be voting No no matter what. In truth if the Yes Scotland campaign wanted to distract the press from the Home Rule Commission, not giving them a formal platform inside the centre, with clear rules and terms of use to abide by, actually creates the media story in the first place. The negative implications of Yes Scotland pulling off a stunt having been given the opportunity to turn up at Conference would fall squarely on them, as they could not accuse us of shutting them out from debate. The media attention such a stunt would attract would lead to more cameras on Willie Rennie, and more opportunity to publicise the Home Rule Commission and show him and the party to be the standard bearers of a popular middle-ground.

If we wanted to give the Home Rule Commission a bit of space to get its own media attention, we could have said to Yes Scotland that we'd be happy to accommodate them at our Spring Conference instead, perhaps even involving them in a fringe event on whether independence was better or worse than home rule or a federal settlement. We could have shown ourselves to be an open and inclusive party not afraid to fight our case, but equally not combative for the sake of it.

That is why I signed a letter to the Herald newspaper urging the Scottish Liberal Democrats to reverse this decision. This was not about trying to undermine the party or the leadership, but about asserting our liberal values of speaking up when we feel people are being shut out of the democratic process of debate and deliberation. Not all of us who signed the letter are even in favour of Scottish independence, and among those of us who are, some are a lot more reluctantly in favour than others. Some of us are in favour of the Westminster coalition, and others are against. This is principally about changing a mindset within the Scottish Party that everything coming from the Yes Campaign or the SNP is a trap. It's harmful towards attempts to develop our own distinctive policies and actually it's harmful for getting those ideas out into the public domain.

We are not rebels. We are not grumbling for the sake of it. We want strong liberal and democratic voices in Scotland. We don't think the other parties are capable of offering it. We don't want the Lib Dems to go the same way.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Better Together: the literature examined

After the hustle and bustle of Glasgow University Freshers Fair, I decided to take a look at the literature of the Better Together campaign. I will leave aside for a minute the irony of an "all party non-party campaign" having its literature disseminated through local Labour Clubs. I wanted to take a look at the substantive claims behind their leafleting campaign and to see what the "positive case" for the continuation of the Union between Scotland and the rest of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Their campaign leaflets pursue this idea that a strong Scotland inside the UK can have "the best of both worlds", offering the benefits of localised government without the risks of independence. Security in numbers, if you will. Their opening gambit is that Scotland could survive as an independent state (or as they call it "separate country"), but that being part of the UK "is the best possible choice for our future". This is a welcome statement and considerable progress on what many have said in the past.

And so to the substance. The leaflets provide 10 arguments in favour of the Union. I'll list them in turn:

"Scots are represented by over 270 embassies as part of the UK, the world's largest diplomatic network (Source Foreign and Commonwealth Office."

Yes. This is true. The UK has a lot of embassies in other countries. But I'm left wondering "so what"? Are they suggesting that Scotland could not maintain an effective embassy presence across the globe? Given our countries are so close and have a long-standing history of relative peace among each other, surely an independent Scotland could share or pool embassy support with the UK (and for that matter, other friendly EU countries) in instances where it would make no economic sense to set-up our own without fear of diplomatic spats undermining the protection and support these buildings offer to travelling citizens?

Besides, on independence it is completely feasible to ensure, as part of the settlement, that all Scots born persons/residents with UK citizenship can retain the citizenship of the old state, either automatically or by election. Their children could thus also acquire that citizenship and would also be protected. For, at a minimum, two generations of people, the entire populus of "Scots" could continue to enjoy all the diplomatic benefits of UK citizenship they currently enjoy. There is precedent for this with the terms of settlement in Ireland, and indeed those born in Northern Ireland continue to be eligible for citizenship of the Republic or the UK (some have dual citizenship). It is therefore hugely questionable that an independent Scotland means Scots will lose the protection offered by the UK diplomatic service (at least not in the medium-term). In the next 40 years or so, there is nothing to stop the Scots expanding their diplomatic presence across the globe; indeed being freed from the confines of UK foreign policy it may be the case that we can set up embassies in countries with more hostile attitudes to the UK in the Middle East and elsewhere, should we choose to do that.

"Scotland exports twice as much to England, Wales and Northern Ireland as to the rest of the world (Source Scottish Government)"

Yes. We do export a lot more to the rest of the UK than elsewhere. I'm glad that we have established that "trade is good". Why is this a point for the Union? Will people south of the border and across the Irish sea stop buying whisky from us if we become an independent country? Free trade is something that is enjoyed throughout the European Economic Area, all those signatory to the European Free Trade Agreement, and all those who are members of the European Union. Scotland can and will continue to trade a lot of stuff with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, if it becomes independent.

The only circumstances in which this is a legitimate point is if either Scotland or the Rest of the UK decides to withdraw completely from the EU, EEA and EFTA. Now I know there's more Euroscepticism down south than in Scotland, but at the very least, surely we can agree that total withdrawal from the single market is not a likely prospect for either prospective state. It is at least amusing to see Tories in the better together campaign articulate so effectively the benefits of free trade with our neighbours, something they so often overlook when talking about the European Union and related bodies. In any case, surely it is in Scotland's interests to diversify its export markets? It must be far healthier in the long run, surely, to sell more to developing economies like China, India, Brazil and Singapore than simply to constrain ourselves to modest exportation on the same set of islands. There is a massive untapped market out there crying out for stuff that we can and are making in Scotland. Irrespective of independence or otherwise, let's go get it.

"One in five workers in Scotland are employed by English, Welsh and Northern Irish firms. (Source HM Treasury)"

Good. Free movement of capital and workers is a great thing. Why is this an argument for the Union? English companies can operate in Scotland now, and they will still be able to on independence. Vice versa is also true. The laws governing companies and their operations is already distinct north and south of the border, with different rules applying. There is no clamour to alter radically company law in Scotland or the RUK, and English companies would face little, if any, problems continuing to operate and trade in Scotland, hiring Scottish people.

"31,000 workers in Scotland have jobs with the UK Government. (Source HMG Departmental Employment Statistics)"

Government work doesn't get abolished just because Scotland becomes an independent country. Those jobs are probably based in Scotland because they relate to administrative work relevant to Scotland (most likely operating out of the Scotland Office). With the transfer of competencies for things like foreign affairs, defence, taxation etc to Scotland itself, there would be a reduced demand for jobs in London (and by the way, a hugely disproportionate number of UK government jobs are in London), and that demand would instead fall in Scotland (admittedly mostly in Edinburgh, as the administrative capital and where the Scottish Parliament is). We'd need tax officers. We'd need a larger civil service to deal with our new competences (the cost of that being off-set by no longer funding the UK civil service). The work of government in Scotland would be more substantial to reflect the increased number and scope of decisions our state would have to take.

Even so, I'd question why a large UK government bureaucracy is an argument for the Union. Perhaps Westminster has been hiring too many people in a civil service capacity, meaning that there is less money to go directly into the provision of public services. The cut and thrust of this, though, has to be "government doesn't stop just because Better Together say so."

"Scottish banks were bailed out with £470 billion from UK taxpayers (Source: Scottish Parliament Information Centre & National Audit Office)"

I'll take the figures as read. Again, though, I'm asking "so what"? Scottish taxpayers money was thrown at transnational corporations with bases in Scotland and for what? To safeguard deposits? No; there was already a government guarantee scheme on those up to £35k per person at the time of the crisis in 2008. For borrowers? No; their loans weren't repayable on demand. If those banks went bust their loan agreement would become an asset to whatever phoenix banks or new organisation took them on, and would continue to be paid under the terms of the agreement. It seems to me that the UK government bailed out the banks simply because it could; not because it was necessarily the best idea. Sometimes having the powers of an economy of scale makes you do things you should really think twice about. If government is going to be tempted to make bad decisions I don't want to give it the chance to make them.

Other small countries like Iceland adopted a different approach to their banks. They let them default, because their governments could not bail them out. That way the actual risk takers (the bond-holders and the investors, and the chief executives) were the ones that lost out; not the ordinary taxpayer and not the ordinary customer. Iceland has recovered pretty strongly from the financial crisis so far, considering some started to label it as a basket case. It is certainly true that countries like Ireland and Spain have had more problems with their domestic banks, but that can be attributed to the huge political and socio-economic imbalances within the Eurozone. I could be wrong, but I don't think Scottish independence supporters are seriously contemplating joining a monetary union with massively macroeconomic and fiscal divergence any time soon. A Sterling zone certainly wouldn't do that any time soon and I don't see any fully developed economy queueing up to join the Euro in its current state. Put simply bailing out the banks wasn't the be all and end all of Scottish prosperity and it wouldn't be in an independent Scotland.

"800,000 Scots live and work in England and Wales without the need for papers or passports (Source General Registrar Office for Scotland)"

That's wonderful. People can live and work in other countries without passports or work permits. If only someone had thought of that idea before. Oh wait. They did. It's called the *European Union*. Any citizen of a member state of the European Union can move about and work in other member states and be treated just as a domestic citizen would. The UK currently has a treaty with the Republic of Ireland which allows people to move between the two countries without showing their passports at the land border, and a similar agreement exists among many European countries called the "Schengen Agreement", which removes border checks there too. Perhaps Better Together would like to explain to us why it is that, in an independent Scotland, there would have to be border posts at Gretna.

It would be politically very stupid for either the Scottish or a rUK government to refuse to enter into such a treaty. Certainly my understanding of the Scottish Government's position is they'd want such a treaty to be put in place, in the same way as the UK government maturely dealt with the question with the Irish. The ball is firmly in Westminster's court on this one. Again, though, I'm delighted that the Tories are joining a campaign on a principle that is central to the European Union of breaking down borders and welcoming people from other countries to live and work here without limits.

"The UK has the World's 2nd biggest aid budget, delivered by life-saving Scots in East Kilbride. (Source Department for International Development)"

I'm not going to go for the easy target here. Though I might be thought of as a "deficit hawk" I completely agree with the principle and goals of the international aid budget and though it needs reformed I think it should be much higher. The question I'd simply ask is this: why can't this continue post independence? What is it about an independent Scotland and a rUK state that makes them less likely to maintain that level of international development aid together? What is to stop them channelling that aid together through a treaty that shares the same institutions? What is to stop them co-ordinating that aid together through NGOs? Put simply, why does independence mean the combined IDA budgets of the successor states will fall and/or be less effective? Answers on a postcard, Better Together.

As an aside, well done East Kilbride. I don't know what you actually *do* or why you do it, but well done.

"The UK means Scots get a seat at the top table at the UN alongside Russia, China and America (The UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council)"

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. The way the UN is structured does give considerable incumbency power to the permanent members of the Security Council. Whether that *should* be the case is another matter, but in international relations we work with what we have. The permanency of that position is mostly predicated on the notion that the UK is a nuclear power. In the long-term, I'd rather we weren't, but I am realistic enough to know that the bargaining and nature of disarmament talks ought to benefit from a moderated voice such as our own in dealings with the Chinese, Russians and US.

An independence settlement would obviously have to address the question of what happens to the UK's nuclear-armed submarines (currently based in Faslane in Scotland). There is strong talk of an independent Scotland refusing to continue to host those weapons. I don't think that will happen (at least not immediately; there may be a transitional lease agreement with the rUK) but if we accept that they will eventually be removed, I struggle to foresee a situation where the rUK would decide simply not to relocate or replace them at an alternative port (even if it isn't as strategically convenient a place).

If they did seek to disarm, I would hope that they would do so in the wider context of disarmament discussions internationally, and that they'd seek assurances of their place on the Security Council, at least for long enough that a proper discussion about its governing structures could take place. The threat to having a moderated "European" or "British" voice on the UN Security Council is, though, both indirect and modest in the event of Scottish independence.

There is a legitimate question, in any case, as to what the Scottish people actually see as their role in the world. Institutions like the UN and NATO have clearly done some good, but they have also been seen as quite aggressive uses of military and diplomatic power by large states on those less able to defend themselves. You don't hear Australia, New Zealand and Canada asking to become part of the UK again to have their voice heard at the table of the Security Council. Independence gives states more freedom to decide which conflicts and international agreements they want to involve themselves in. You have to ask yourself, to what extent do the views of ordinary Scots (or for that matter, ordinary Brits) are reflected in the actions of the UK as their "representative" political actor in international politics. I suspect not a lot. If the UK is making good decisions in international forums, I suspect an independent Scotland would support them. Independence doesn't mean completely divorcing ourselves from international political consensus; on the contrary it gives us greater flexibility as to when we want a part in it.

"Scots save billions on the cost of mortgages due to the UK's AAA credit rating. (Source HMT Analysis)"

First of all, I want to know what the assumptions are here. Billions saved as opposed to what? The *UK* having a poorer credit rating? Scotland itself having a poorer credit rating? Are they implying that an independent Scotland would not be able to sustain a AAA credit rating? What are the economic assumptions for that? How are you linking the government's credit rating to the solvency and liquidity of banks (and thus by extension, the security and cost of ordinary citizens' mortgage agreements)? To what extent do the nominal credit ratings and central bank interest rates of the UK actually correlate to real-world commercial lending? What is it specifically about an independent Scotland that would change that? We need an explanation before we can meaningfully assess what the actual comparator is here, and how likely it is.

Further, I want to know *how many* billions are being saved here. There were, as of 2010, 2,357,424 dwellings in Scotland. (Estimates of Households and Dwellings in Scotland, 2010: Table 1). If we assume that all of them had mortgages (which they don't), a saving of £1 billion over all of the mortgages would be the equivalent of about £424. Because they haven't substantiated this claim, we can't say exactly how many billions (thus how many times we'd have to multiply that £424 figure) or whether this is annually or over the course of the entire mortgage. If it is annually, that does look like a reasonable saving. For many that will be the equivalent to an extra two months' repayments every year. If, however it's over the course of the entire mortgage, that's a saving of less than 0.5% of the value of the median house price in Scotland. That's minute. Most would barely notice that difference over a 25 year period.

This claim can accurately be summed up as weasel words and blank assertion. It provides no analysis as to whether credit ratings are actually particularly accurate reflections of underlying economic performance, it provides no analysis of why UK institutions are specifically stronger than would be Scottish ones, and it provides no analysis as to why a minor change in Scotland's credit rating would significantly affect the cost of a mortgage to your average Scottish home-buyer.

"The pensions of 1 million Scots are guaranteed by the UK welfare system. (Source Department for Work and Pensions)"

It's official. According to Better Together, the UK Government is the only government capable of raising funds for, and paying funds out for, the pensions of old people and those formerly employed by the state. There is no analysis here at all about why these pensions cannot or will not be protected in an independent Scotland. They have not explained why this is an argument for the Union. This is like saying "the trees in Scotland are green with it as part of the UK. This is an excellent argument for why Scotland and the UK are better together".

And that's just the point

To me, these claims, with the honourable exception of realpolitik with the UN on foreign policy, represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the debate by Better Together. It's not enough simply to say "there's lots of nice stuff in the UK". You have to explain, rather than simply state, why these nice things cannot, or are less likely to be able to be, achieved in an independent Scotland working in partnership with the rest of the UK and Europe. You have to explain specifically why it is that these things are only made possible with a UK. You have to explain why Scotland won't still work closely with the UK on issues like trade, international development aid, foreign policy.

You also have to explain why the UK is best placed to deliver more in decentralised and effective democratic government than an independent Scotland. You need to show the Scottish people that you're serious about proper federalism or significant transfers of taxation and legislative powers to the Scottish Government, rather than piecemeal changes like the new Scotland Act. You have to show Scotland why the social union between our countries cannot survive without the political institutions of Westminster and its relatives. You have to show us why those political institutions represent a better way of doing things (either as they are now, or with specific and prioritised reforms) than to transfer those powers to Holyrood and to let Scotland remould its own institutions with its own new Constitutional Convention in the run up to establishing a new independent country.

Yes Scotland: you'll have to do better than
social democracy milk and honey too
And let's be clear, I'm not exonerating Yes Scotland or the SNP Government in this. The appropriate argument for YesScotland is not simply "no more nukes" or "land of milk and honey, free tuition, infinite healthcare, free burgers for everyone" either. It has to be about explaining why the opposite is true in those questions above. They have to explain why Scotland can maintain the benefits of economies of scale without the negative effects of excessive centralisation of bureaucracy and decision-making to Westminster. They have to explain why, structurally and realistically, institutional reform will be done more timely and better by an independent Scotland, and explain why a new constitution for local control of our affairs will be better achieved through Holyrood than Westminster. They have to explain more clearly (and they have started to do this) why you don't need the political and institutional structures of the UK to benefit from the commonality of our cultures and outlook in social union. They need to give a broad idea (though clearly not every last minutiae of specifics) of the choices Scotland will have in positioning itself in the world: to show us how our structures can fit in with institutions like the EU, NATO and the UN, should we choose to be a part of them (and on all three fronts, I hope we will).

But as I have indicated, I don't see answers coming from BetterTogether. None. None at all. There has to be a stronger case for the Union than that. If there isn't, then I cannot for the life of me understand why YesScotland aren't miles ahead in the polls. This debate has to get a lot smarter on both sides and it has to do it soon. Independence is not about speculation about which constitutional settlement gives you the most stuff; it's about being the country we want to be, with the institutions we want to have, and regaining control of our society and moulding it into what we want it to be.

Sunday 2 September 2012

Sunday Trading Laws - Dissecting the conservative Medusa

This is a response to the article "Sunday trading laws protect the family and civil society. Libertarians should not do away with them." by Thomas Byrne (aka @ByrneToff), which appeared on Conservative Home earlier today.

Why do Sunday Trading Laws exist?

Thomas offers broadly three strands of argument for why the Sunday Trading Laws exist. The first is historical, cultural and religious, and promulgates this idea that protecting Sundays from work strengthens the family unit. The second is couched in the language of employment rights, and protecting employees from being exploited by large retail outlets insisting they work long weeks. The third is couched in the idea that free trading hours only help oligarchical supermarkets and harm small businesses, who need protected.

Let's look at those arguments in turn:

1. History, Culture, Religion, the Family

The first argument we get opens as follows:

"To [relax Sunday Trading Laws] wouldn't be a declaration of war upon Christianity, the damage has been done there by the changes in 1994. This would stick up two fingers to wider society and the soft Christian outlook that they hold"

This employs the following suppositions. First, it claims that the 1994 reforms (which allowed shops to trade on Sundays, but restricted larger outlets to only 6 hours of trading) were a "declaration of war upon Christianity". Without wishing to be too curt, that is drivel. Christianity was not undermined by allowing individuals to buy and sell things on a Sunday. Let's be clear what we're talking about here. At the absolute maximum, we are talking about an erosion in the influence of Christianity on the laws of the state. The ideas of Christianity, and the pursuit of religious ends by Christian individuals and Christian communities was somehow undermined by permitting people to trade on a Sunday is totally unsubstantiated.

For this critique to be a valid one, therefore, references to Christianity, must refer to the influence of Christianity on the law and the state in shaping society. But then Thomas and others have to explain why it is morally legitimate for Christianity to do this, but not any other belief system. Why should trade be prohibited or heavily restricted on a Sunday because it's the Christian Sabbath, but not on Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath, or Fridays for the Islamic day of rest and prayer? What is so special about Christianity.

We get an attempt at an answer when he says that relaxing Sunday Trading Laws would "[stick] up... two fingers to wider society and the soft Christian outlook that they hold". There are two problems with this. Firstly, it is simply categorically not true that "wider society" holds a "soft Christian outlook". Wider society is not a homogenous or contiguous group with one set of values as to how families should operate, when they should work, when they should rest, and what constitutes positive collective activity.

On the particulars, this assertion is empirically untrue. Only a slender majority of the English and Welsh population identify as Christian (circa 53.48%) and even then, only 29% of the population consider themselves to be "religious". That isn't evidence of a "soft Christian outlook". That's evidence of a declining religious/Christian outlook in our society, and a small minority of our society considering values exclusive to religion playing in any sense an important part of the way we conduct our affairs with other people.

But let us assume for a minute that we were in a society in which the overwhelming majority of the population went to church every Sunday, held sincerely the view that trading on the Sabbath was morally wrong and that people should spend Sundays with their families. Let's say then, that we have a Sunday Trading Law. Is it then legitimate for them to insist that nobody in their society can say "oh my God" or "Jesus Christ" because in a "Christian worldview" or "Christian outlook" these things constitute blasphemy? Is it then legitimate for that group to insist that no one in that society may engage in a homosexual relationship, since that contradicts their historical "soft Christian outlook"?

No. Religion does not command moral legitimacy over our laws simply because, historically, large sections of society have agreed with them. That it's the way it was always done does not mean that it's the way it should be. This is a classic example of the Hume's Guillotine. Religion needs more than prevalence to justify a special place in the law and the morality contained therein. The only legitimate presumption of all laws is that they should have a secular application. The only way you avoid imposing a morality on other people is to recognise that there is a plurality of views about what the family is and how it interacts with wider society.

Even if we think of Sunday as a secular universal day of rest, as Thomas would then like you to ponder, he casts implicit judgment about what families should be doing with this day of rest. This conforms to a historical and coercive idea of the family unit, how it functions, how the constituent parts interact. He hectors families who value different forms of "together time" than that which conforms to his world-view:

"There is a clear divide between the young and the old as to whether the current laws should stay the same as the invisible hand of business has crushed tradition. Some couples now see shopping at supermarkets as a leisure activity in itself. Has family time really been reduced to buying the latest games console because the state won’t grant them any time to form a real relationship with their children?"

The reality is that the family unit is a lot more complicated and a lot more plural than the traditional unit suggests. Some families have different commitments from others: some will value going shopping together, as a communal activity that they could not otherwise enjoy on other days when fitting them around their hectic weekday schedule and that busy Saturday taking kids to and from sporting activities or other events. Some families will value spending a cold, wet and rainy weekend in front of the television playing Wii Sports and watching Doctor Who, before choosing to amble out to Asda after 6pm to do a big shop that sets them up to make all the kids pack lunches the following week with fresh food.

What Thomas has to answer is why that choice by a family is any less legitimate than surrendering their already limited free time at other points in the week to a set of laws that are inconvenient for them, for a morality they do not share.

2. Employment rights, universal benefit/perk/quirk

Second, we've got this idea that relaxing Sunday Trading Laws is to "allow ourselves to capitulate entirely to [large employers'] needs and demands."

Further, we have this idea that:

"Sunday before 1994 was a day in which families were, for a while, set free from capitalism and were able to join together as a family, or as a community, knowing that they were all equally able to set aside their time for this task


The law was widely supported because it was a privilege that was universal.

What we have seen is Sunday slowly turned into just another day where the poor are forced to work and therefore forced away from their family and friends."

This is a spurious narrative. It runs three suppositions. Firstly, it supposes that there is a universal entitlement not to work on a Sunday. Secondly, it supposes that relaxing Sunday Trading laws forces people to work longer. Thirdly, it supposes that forcing the majority of people to take their time off on a Sunday is inherently more valuable than to let them take their time off at any other time.

So let's deal with these in turn.

Not everyone can choose not to work on a Sunday. For our society to function properly and productively we need people working all the time. Criminals don't refrain from crime on Sundays. Ill people don't refrain from dying on Sundays. Fires don't put themselves out on Sundays. Electricity doesn't produce itself unattended on Sundays. The essential and pleasurable services we all take for granted that make our weekends so enjoyable and entertaining all rely upon other people working during those times. To open the cinema for that family unit to do something fun together. To have that meal out to celebrate mum's birthday that everyone's been looking forward to. To buy that crate of lager at short notice from the local supermarket before multiple generations sit in front of the tele to watch the football, or the bottle or three of wine to take in while playing Trivial Pursuit after dinner.

Nurses, doctors, offshore workers, Christian religious leaders(!) and many other workers, including those in the service sector, are needed to work on Sundays. Hell, it even includes workers in small supermarket stores! The claim that this rigid week structure is somehow an ideological universal entitlement is wrong by any objective measure. You have to explain why it is that this "universal" value does not have to apply to those working in the service sector, small shops, and jobs not involving trade. Unless you can do that, you cannot say with a straight face that Sunday Trading Laws emancipate workers.

Secondly, the idea that relaxing Sunday Trading Laws necessarily forces people to work longer. Note the use of the word "force". Presumably that's why it's bad, right? Well this just isn't borne out in evidence. Workers are not "forced" to work on Sundays in Scotland. Indeed, when the Sunday Trading Laws were relaxed up here, specific protections were put in place so that it could not be insisted that someone on a standard weekday contract would also work on a Sunday. Further, there are specific statutory limits on the number of hours someone can be expected to work in their regular working week (48 hours) under EU legislation. The idea that relaxing Sunday Trading laws forces the poor back into a Victorian dystopia is perplexing.

In any case, those who work on Sundays at the moment work an atypical working week. They might be part-time staff. They might be young single parents who can only get childcare assistance from the rest of their family at the weekend, and need the extra hours to pay the bills and provide for their kids. Sunday work is freedom for them! It gives them the flexibility, and the choice, to participate in the workforce on terms closer to their optimal preference, in a mutually beneficial arrangement with their employers. The sort of people who currently work on a Sunday for a supermarket will, almost to a man, be grateful for the extra two hours pay they're going to get for their standard 8-hour shift. What they lose is two hours in the morning. They still have their evening to enjoy with their family. Their lives are far freer than, say, those who work the nightshift or an off-shore two-weeks-on two-weeks off arrangement in the North Sea's oil rigs.

If supermarkets or similar large stores need more employees to stay open on a Sunday for longer: good. There are lots of people looking for work right now. An 8-hour shift is far more attractive to someone living hand to mouth off the state than a 6-hour one. More people in employment is generally a good thing.

Third, this idea that Sunday is still a special case from the perspective of employment rights and that having to take your day off on Sunday is better. This has been demonstrated above to be false, given then wide variety of demographics, personal circumstances and personal preferences of workers, families and consumers alike.

If Thomas was serious about protecting employment rights and an enabling function to quality family time, he would instead endorse my proposal, and something I think should be Liberal Democrat policy. Abolish the standard working week. End once and for all the idea that the typical worker must work Monday to Friday/Saturday and taking Sunday off. Instead, create a statutory right to two days unpaid holiday for every five days worked. Give the employee a statutory right to fix one of those days to a day of the week of their choice. Then give the employer a statutory right to fix the other. In the event the employer declines that right, the employee can choose the second day.

That would be more of a universal right, more empowering for workers, and give them the opportunity to shape their working week around the specific requirements of their family. We don't need to appeal to history and pseudo-religious cultural values to protect the workforce from exploitation.

3. Protect small businesses

Simply put:
"The effect of dismantling the remaining trading laws would simply be to erode the protection that small business owners and their employees have to spend time with their families and then destroy their business entirely. It would force the supermarkets to open full hours on a Sunday (and all the staff that entails) in order to stay in competition without any benefit to the consumer, apart from their own convenience.


The message that it sends out is that "God helps those whom he has already helped". Supermarkets need no more help from us.

Where to start...

If a small business owner wants to spend more time with his family, they are completely free not to open his business premises during that time. That is their choice. If someone does not want to work on a Sunday, they can enter into an employment contract which specifies that they do not have to.

No supermarket will be "forced" to trade 8-hours on a Sunday. I'm sure most would anyway, but that's their choice. If they expend more money on the labour-force without increasing their profitability, fine. I thought you were fed up of the special privilege supermarkets have in the market? You cannot simultaneously say that this will be good for supermarkets and then say that they will be the ones forced to do more to cater to their customer's more demanding requirements.

The thing about retail and the ethos of supermarkets, is that convenience is king. With the advancement of these economies of scale, we've ended up with cheap, mostly good quality food, readily available to the masses when they want and need it, so as to increase the opportunities and choice consumers have in what they do with the rest of their time. As an idea it is fundamentally subservient to "wider society". This is what we call "progress".

This isn't about boosting GDP or solving the economic crisis. It's about looking for ways that the market can better meet the demand of its consumers. Convenience is a big part of that. It is something to be valued in and of itself and instrumentally. The target market for convenience isn't the high paid middle-class bourgeoisie, whose working hours are already comfortable and whose routines are already relatively decadent. This is about the modern family, in all its shapes and sizes, for whom time is a precious thing with no shortage and variety of demands upon it. It's about offering more flexibility to those who need to work at the weekend and those who need to buy things at the weekend.

For those who value Sunday, they can still choose not to work that day. They can still choose not to go to the shops that day. They can still choose to spend that day with their family and to say grace at the table. If there's enough of them, the supermarkets will probably respond accordingly by employing fewer staff for a quieter shift. If as Thomas says, people go to supermarkets because they are cheaper and more convenient, then perhaps these "small businesses" he says need protected are actually part of the problem. They're expensive and inconvenient for the consumer, and they don't value them any more. They don't need protecting.

And yes, supermarkets need brought down a peg or two. It shouldn't be straightforward for Tesco to monopolise a whole city by abusing the planning system. But telling them when they can and can't sell stuff on a Sunday doesn't stop them dominating the market, it doesn't empower their or other workers, and it doesn't help the single mum who can't find anywhere after 6pm within reach that sells Pampers nappies. All it does is serve as a sop to a pseudo-religious minority within our society who find the idea that people can do what they like on Sundays offensive.

Guess what. You don't have a right not to be offended.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

To Michael Gove: Free schools? Yes. But free thinkers too please.

Prologue - Education from my perspective

First, a bit of disclosure. I went to two state primary schools (one in rural Fife, another in the suburbs of Aberdeen). I then moved to an independent (fee-paying, academically selective, coeducational) secondary school (also in Aberdeen). My (completely anecdotal) experience of state and non-state provision was that the independent sector was generally much more flexible to individual student needs, better disciplined, fostered a stronger sense of community and made much better provision for a range of extra-curricular activities for those who wished to pursue them.

I hazard all of the above with important caveats. I cannot say that my experience is necessarily typical, or that I am comparing like with like (primary v secondary). I would observe also that my experiences of rural state education was markedly better in most respects than at the suburban city primary, even though the former was, on reflection, far less well financially resourced. I would also point out that both state schools had some very good teachers, and the independent school some teachers that were frankly not. What I would say, though, is that my own experiences of a fairly broad range of education have left me relatively ideologically unattached to the idea of the state as the dominant force in education, and sympathetic to ways of bringing what works from the independent sector, where possible, to a wider audience.

It should, of course, be recognised that fees and the funding discrepancy across sectors is not insignificant. The cost of the 6 years of my secondary education would have been more than £10kpa in today's money. Private education is not cheap, and as far as fees go in both Scotland and England, this is pretty much the floor, rather than the ceiling. This compares to an average spend of £6.2k per pupil in England's state sector (2009-10), and an average spend of £6.65k per pupil in Scotland (2008-09). This additional expense (without rebate for not using the state sector) puts private educational provision ahead in terms of resources and facilities, but also puts it out of the reach of many families from otherwise reasonably comfortable backgrounds.

Parallels with a Minister

Indeed if it wasn't for an extensive bursary scheme, I could not have gone to my independent secondary school. I was the beneficiary of an organisation set up to widen access to one of the highest performing schools in Scotland. I was not the only one. By coincidence, the independent secondary school I attended was also attended by a certain Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. He too relied on assistance of this kind to be able to access independent education.

Almost regardless of political persuasion, people have looked to the independent sector to see how state schooling might be improved. We've seen numerous approaches tried and tested, from academically tiered local authority schools, to grant maintained schools, to academies and, yes, ultimately to free schools. The latter is an idea which is not alien to other countries, with the likes of Sweden and the USA having equivalents of state-funded but relatively administratively autonomous schools, given less stringent requirements to comply with in respect of the National Curriculum or equivalent document. Even in Scotland, the hyper-state-comprehensive nation, has an anomaly or two, including Jordanhill School in Glasgow, which is funded directly from central government and not subject to conventional local authority control.

For many liberals though, Michael Gove, in his Education brief, has proved infuriating and intriguing in wildly varying measures. One the one hand, he talks the talk on academies and free schools, forcefully arguing that they provide a credible alternative for those who are not satisfied with the alternative provision. All too often the state education system is seen as increasingly centralised and bureaucratic, either to the local authority or to central government itself. The freedom to innovate and come up with new, more interesting and effective ways of teaching young people skills is stifled by an overly prescriptive National Curriculum and an obsession with teaching to the test in a way which only serves to promote mediocrity. His expansion of the academies scheme and introduction of free schools has served to challenge an educational establishment which has otherwise become too comfortable with its pre-existing structures.

Gove's (religious) conservative streak

On the other hand, Gove has courted some of the most blindingly idiotic (if not *that* significant) policies of this government that remind you why he's a Tory and not a bona fide liberal reformer. First there was that infamous vanity project in which he sought to deliver a King James Bible to every English primary and secondary school under the disingenuous guise of its "contribution to our language and our democracy". But now this has been supplemented by the approval of three free schools by organisations which hold creationism to be scientific fact and have stated their intent to teach it as such.

Case for the defence

Now some may (correctly) point out that religious organisations already run a lot of schools. The Church of England run a considerable number, and in Scotland a great number of state schools are designated Roman Catholic. Even our notionally "non-denominational" schools typically have a Church of Scotland minister attached to them as a chaplain. So in some respects the Department of Education's decision to allow these groups to open schools is only an extension of the status quo. Indeed the official Department of Education advice specifically states that they "do not expect creationism, intelligent design and similar ideas to be taught as valid scientific theories in any state funded school." Indeed none of these groups maintain that they will teach creationism/ID in the science classroom as alternatives to evolution.

Creationism, Faith Schooling, and the State

However, there are principally two problems with this. The first is that an education is not compartmentalised. Just because a non-evolutionary theory is being taught as fact in an RE class or an assembly, does not mean that it somehow exists in an immunised bubble from what pupils learn in the biology or chemistry lab. Something that is science fiction (and let us be clear, creationism is every bit as science fiction as Star Wars) is being propagated as an institutionally recognised truth to impressionable young people at the same time as they are being introduced to ideas of scepticism, the scientific method, and testing assertions against an evidential burden.

By sending mixed messages under the big tent of a school, you are saying that contradictory claims are simultaneously true, or worse still harming their ability to rationalise and develop critical thought in their approach to their academic studies. A less scientifically literate population is more likely to hold on to these palpably ridiculous ideas like that the world is 6000 years old. They are even going to be less likely to develop critical approaches to present scientific paradigms, slowing human progress by leaving society to waste its energies on a battle long since resolved for just about anyone who has paid any attention.

But actually, the greater harm isn't creationism in schools. It is the reality that state funding for schools run by or with involvement from religious groups is tacit institutional approval of their belief system and a licence to proselytise the impressionable. When the state lets the Church of England run a school or the Scottish education system assigns a Church of Scotland parish minister to a school, or designates a state school as a Roman Catholic one, or when the state provides funding to an educational establishment pushing creationism over and above other belief systems, it is saying something important.

It is not, as others have suggested to me, simply saying that parents have the right to choose a school for their children, which educates in accordance with their beliefs (and to be clear, it IS the parents' beliefs). It is saying that these people have a right to insist that the general taxpayer (including atheists, agnostics, ignostics, theists of other creeds etc) contribute towards, and facilitate the goals of that organisation. This is not morally acceptable. Religion is rightly a matter of deep personal sincerity and importance and no one should interfere with your right to hold your beliefs and to live your life in adherence to them (so long as it doesn't harm others). But it is precisely because of this that we should not allow free schools to become a back-door for religious organisations to take state money.

The purpose of state education is to provide a minimum standard of teaching, according to established criteria of critical thinking and skills development. There are different ways to achieve that, and free schools definitely provide an opportunity to set-up competing modes of teaching and learning environments to help the state sector work out which ones are most popular and which ones are less effective. Genuine competition on quality of provision does improve standards and could help shift power from educational institutions to parents, teachers and pupils themselves.

State education does NOT exist to maximise the capacity for parents to have their beliefs approved of and institutionally normalised around their children so as to make them more likely to accept those beliefs in later life. There are other ways these views can be communicated to their children, through out-of-school education within religious communities, or even, "God forbid", by the setting up of a religious independent school. If these organisations truly have a demand for such faith-based schooling, there is no good reason why they need state approval or support to set-up schools with wide access, including through philanthropy for those who could not afford any "fees".

Now I'm not saying that I'd personally approve of private faith-based schools; I'd hold them in as much contempt for a degree of indoctrination of the impressionable just like a state school. But at least they don't have anything like the same degree of institutional approval or endorsement. They would live and die on their merits; not muddle by regardless on their government block grant.

Religion and education were historically linked, and no one is denying that religious orders were important in the development of the idea of education as a public good. But we are not a Christian country any more. We are not a religious country any more. We live in an increasingly secular society and our state has to reflect that. Our values are not as reliant on our religious history as we once thought it was and most of the religious institutions in our society are playing perpetual catch-up with society's attitudes. It is despite rather than because of their institutional privilege that we have changed our views on homosexuality, women's rights, abortion and many other issues besides.

It wouldn't be a post this long without a reference to The West Wing, so I'll finish by paraphrasing the views of the irreligious Republican Senator Arnold Vinick of California:
Our state education system can teach our children many things from science to the humanities and the arts, but if you want to teach your child about religion, please... go to church.

Thursday 21 June 2012

In (partial) defence of the Pasty Tax

In the last few weeks we've seen the Pandora's box of national tax policy rear its ugly head again. In a couple of posts, one tonight and one tomorrow, I intend to address three issues. First there was the u-turn on what is now better known by its twitter hashtag "#pastytax", then stories of, among other things, a number of high-net-worth French citizens considering moving to the UK in response to the Eurozone's economic climate and tax policies of Francois Hollande. Finally, we've had the hysteria, hyperbole and hypocrisy abound when it was revealed that Jimmy Carr had been exploiting the K2 EBT tax loophole.

It seems as though, in this country and further afield, tax policy is no longer about what constitutes simple and sound economics for effective provision of public services and more and more about what particular stakeholders think others should be forced to pay. It creates a particularly pernicious form of corporatism, based on warped conceptions of fairness that are utterly impossible to pin down and harder still to give effect to by any sort of state mechanism whatsoever.

Take Pasty Tax. This is just the tip of the iceberg in a very messy way we, and the rest of the EU, attempt to tax consumption of goods and services. To retain high revenue while protecting the poorest from potentially regressive effects, we create exceptions. For example, we decided that residential energy provision would attract a reduced rate of 5%.

We also created an exception for food and drink, because that accounts for a significant part of family budgets, especially for low earners. But then we recognised that not all food and drink are essential in this way. So we created exceptions to the exemption. Alcohol was considered non-essential, as was chocolate, and catered food. The rationale behind the latter-most was you're not just being given a good, but a supplementary service. Either you were served food in an eating establishment or had food heated up for near immediate convenient consumption elsewhere that could not otherwise be consumed.

On its own, each rule makes some degree of sense. The problem is, it creates a culture of exceptionalism and with it perceptions of arbitrariness. Whether it's Jaffa Cakes claiming exception from VAT because they harden rather than soften when they go stale (meaning they're not a chocolate biscuit), or bakeries claiming exemption for their goods because they aren't necessarily sustained above ambient temperature right up to the point of sale, we get people trying to carve out their own little privileged position. And because of lobbying and special interests, we end up with absurd positions where a bacon roll gets charged VAT but a pasty doesn't.

And who benefits from this convenient little exemption? Not the poor. The prices of catered food are already punitive for them because of business rates and profit margins, especially for small firms. No. The real beneficiaries are Greggs. In what must have been one of the most successful instances of corporatist lobbying since Bernie Ecclestone's tobacco advertising exemption for Formula 1, they've been given a state sponsored piece of special privilege that shuts out competition from caterers of other foodstuffs. And what does that do for healthy eating among the low-earners? It leaves Glasgow with about 8-10 Greggs within a 2 mile radius of each other, entrenching a culture of heart disease and obesity.

But let's be clear, it's not Greggs' fault that our politicians are fickle, that our public consciousness is so bound up in the notion of vested interests as a good thing. It's not their fault that political lobbyists crowd around a special case like Cornish Pasties, undermining the cause of free trade that has otherwise served Europe so well. But make no mistake: their tears hail from a corporate crocodile and there's more out there ready to bite the electorate that feeds them.

The lesson of Pasty Tax is not that of a vindictive government looking to screw the Northern poor. It's about a feckless government riddled with decades of vested interest and completely unable or unwilling to defend the basic principles underpinning its own tax system. If you're going to tax hot food you have to tax it all. The "whatabout" exceptionalist and corporatist mentality is precisely what has made our tax code one of the longest, most convoluted, and inefficient instruments of government design in the world.

One of the biggest arguments for sales taxes is how easy they are to operate. We've even negated even that.

Saturday 26 May 2012

Nozick, Hayek and a little dose of Kant

Having initially been quite enthusiastic for Robert Nozick's ideas in Anarchy, State and Utopia, the prospect of taking a politics course at University focusing on precisely the issues of fairness, the role of the state and the justifications for equality (on different levels) was something I really looked forward to. I was surprised then, to come to the conclusion that I'd been somewhat too keen on Nozick's ideas, with which there are a number of obvious problems. I found particular difficulties reconciling Nozick's jump between a Kantian notion of the rational agent and self-ownership. Though largely a sceptic of utilitarian-type arguments, it certainly left me feeling more receptive towards the pragmatic justifications for an emphasis on the individual in society like those posited by Hayek.

Being at Glasgow University I didn't expect an environment to be receptive to libertarian ideas, but all things considered, discussion was far more constructive than one might expect. There were a few moments where I simply switched off (such as when someone suggested that the Poll Tax brought down the last Conservative government even though they, you know, won again in 1992) but the level of critical engagement, rather than simply fawning hysteria you come to anticipate was pleasing.

I'll probably refine my thoughts on this over the summer and beyond, but if you want to see my initial thoughts, you can find them in the link below:

Click Here

Thursday 24 May 2012

Here Comes the Summer

It's been quite a while since my last post, but now the exams are out the way, third-year is done and the summer weather is here! Plenty news and much to look forward to.

First up I managed to secure a placement at a law firm in Aberdeen over the summer. Having fired off countless applications for summer work it was brilliant to be able to secure something. I was hoping to find something for a fortnight or so but really struck lucky as this placement will run for six weeks and it's being paid to boot.

Not long after that's over I'll be heading off to Belgrade to take part in the European Universities Debating Championships. I eventually got involved in Uni debating this year and wish I'd done so much sooner. After a couple of competitions and internal trials I secured my place and will be debating with Michael Gray (@GrayInGlasgow) who's a smart lad and great lateral thinker. He's also somewhat a perennial blogger on all things Scotland, including on the important constitutional and social questions facing us. Take a look here. In any case it will be an adventure heading to Serbia and with the GUU funding our teams there'll be more Serbian dinars for refreshments...

As soon as I get back from Serbia I'll be going straight into a two week placement at the Law Department of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. I did a school work experience placement shadowing a few people with the General Trustees a few years ago so it will be good to go back in a more active capacity.

So that's what I've got lined up for the summer. It will be busy but looking forward to it.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Response to Scottish Government consultation on Independence Referendum

As with the UK Government's Consultation, I have responded to the Scottish Government's Consultation on the Independence Referendum and suggest you do the same:

To whom it concerns,

I enclose my response to the questions raised in the Scottish Government's Consultation Paper on the Independence Referendum. I draw particular attention to my recommendations in respect of the franchise and the need for a public and legally clear second question so as best to make clear independence takes primacy in the event of a double-Yes vote,


Graeme Cowie

Q1: What are your views on the referendum question and the design of the ballot paper?

The question is straight-forward and accessible. I'd rather the paper properly addressed the mechanics of a second question (to put that issue to bed once and for all) instead of vaguely mentioning that it could be added if there was a call for it. I disagree with the Scottish Government's view that, per para 1.5 the question could circumvent s29 and Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act in the event a s30 order or extension of power by Act of Parliament was not forthcoming.

Q2: What are your views on the proposed timetable and voting arrangements?

They are satisfactory.

Q3: What are your views on the inclusion of a second question in the referendum and the voting system that could be used?

I believe a second question asking "notwithstanding your response to Q1 should the powers of the Scottish Parliament should be extended to include full tax-raising powers and other competences which are presently reserved matters" or words to that effect, should be on the ballot paper. As a Liberal Democrat, I have urged my party to work with the Scottish Government to define the parameters of this third option and I would hope that a bit of give and take would be forthcoming on both sides. The first question on the ballot, contrary to the original Referendum Bill in the last Parliament, should be the independence and not the extra-powers question. This leaves the voter in no doubt whatsoever that the primary issue at stake is independence and that devo-max is a related but alternative proposition that will only come into play if the first question results in a No vote.

As a word of caution, I would avoid using "but remaining with the UK" or any reference to such in the second question, because it makes the propositions not merely related alternatives but mutually exclusive propositions. This should remove any pretence of uncertainty with reference to what has been dubbed "Rennie's Riddle".

Q4: What are your views on the proposal to give the Electoral Management Board and its Convener responsibility for the operational management of the referendum?

I am content with these propositions. It is a welcome development that the SNP has disposed of its proposal for a separate Referendum Commission, which would have been an unnecessary complication, not terribly expedient, and would have shown a disregard for the good, independent, and impartial work of the Electoral Commission in both UK-wide and devolved referenda.

Q5: What are your views on the proposed division of roles between the Electoral Management Board and the Electoral Commission?

No objections.

Q6: What are your views on the idea that the referendum could be held on a Saturday or on other ways which would make voting easier?

I see no compelling reason to hold it on a Saturday. By Autumn 2014 the football season will have gotten well under-way and many fans will be quite far away from their polling station in any case. The standard mid-week position is one that should be adopted. I don't see any great need to change the existing polling location arrangements either. That's a matter for the local authorities' Election Boards.

Q7: What are your views on extending the franchise to those aged 16 and 17 years who are eligible to be registered on the electoral register?

I wholeheartedly agree with the principle of votes at 16. I cannot, however, agree with the mechanism the SNP has described. There are severe legitimacy issues when it comes to an ad hoc reduction of the franchise as part of the same Act of Scottish Parliament that provides for a one-off plebiscite. Further, the manner and form of registration on the Electoral Roll for 16 and 17 year-olds is inexact and the cut-off would not be as clear (with some 16 year-olds being eligible to go on the roll and others not). The reason this group are registered on the roll at all is to guarantee that they will be on the roll by the time they are eligible to vote at 18. It comes across as incredibly ad hoc and doesn't further it for the right reasons in the constitutionally appropriate manner

If you are going to extend the franchise you have to do it properly and by separate Act of Parliament. I have a lot of sympathy for the SNP in this area since both the Gould Report and Calman Commission supported the devolution of elections in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament. I would suggest that the Scottish Government issue a specific request to be given the power to set the franchise in Scottish Parliamentary and local elections, and by extension any referendums held in Scotland only. Then they could introduce a Representation of the People (Scotland) Bill prior to the passage of the Referendum Bill into law, extending the franchise to 16 for all Scotland-only elections.

Q8: What are your views on the proposed spending limits?

I see nothing objectionable.

Q9: Do you have any other comments about the proposals in the draft Referendum (Scotland) Bill?


Monday 23 January 2012

My response to the UK Scottish Referendum Consultation

I have responded to the UK Government's consultation on the Scottish Independence Referendum and enclose my comments verbatim below. I would strongly encourage all, regardless of their political persuasion, to make their views known so that we get the most considered and appropriate result. Constitutional law is not something to be treated as a political weapon (by either side of this debate) and legal clarity is imperative.

To whom it concerns,

Please find attached the document containing my response to the consultation document published by the UK Government in respect of the delivery of a legal and impartial referendum on Scotland's constitutional future. I trust that the UK Government is content to give considerable ground on its assumed position, which I consider to be untenable on a number of grounds into which I elaborate through my responses.

Kind Regards,

Graeme Cowie

Q 1: What are your views on using the order making power provided in the Scotland Act 1998 to allow the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a legal referendum in an Act of the Scottish Parliament?

A: This is probably the most appropriate cause of action, given the s30 procedure requires proper consultation with the Scottish Parliament itself. The alternative would be to make for such a provision as an amendment to the current Scotland Bill, which has its merits in certain respects which I shall elaborate on in question 3 and also in 4-6.

Q 2: What are your views on the UK Parliament legislating to deliver a referendum on independence?

A: Clearly it has the legal power to do so (unlike the Scottish Parliament at present), but on a principled constitutional level and on a basic political level this would be incredibly stupid. Not only would it lend itself to allegations that Westminster was “dictating” the terms of a referendum to an SNP administration with a clear political mandate on the matter, but it would also allow English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs a say on the formulation of the questions. This is a matter for Scotland and its representatives alone.

Q 3: What are your views on whether the Scotland Bill should be used either to:
i) give the Scottish Parliament the power to legislate for a referendum; or
ii) directly deliver a referendum?

A: As I explained in response to Q 1, there is an argument for doing the first of these rather than issuing a s30 order, which I will elaborate upon later. As for the second, I emphatically reject it for the reasons highlighted in my response to Q 2.

Q 4: What are your views on the oversight arrangements for a referendum on Scottish independence?

A: In general terms, I agree that there should be constitutional consistency of matters of franchise and performance of electoral procedure by the existing bodies. However, I would draw attention to one of the recommendations from the Calman Commission, a provision supported by all of the parties with representation in the Scottish Parliament, that matters such as the franchise and the arrangements for local and Scottish Parliamentary elections should be devolved in the Scotland Bill down to Holyrood. The UK Government's decision not to implement this proposal through the primary legislation should be revisited. It logically follows that if Holyrood is to be allowed to set the franchise conditions for those elections, that it should control similar functions for any referendum which only applies to Scotland.

Q 5: Do you think the Electoral Commission should have a role in overseeing a referendum on Scottish independence?

A: Yes I believe that the Electoral Commission is the appropriate body for oversight of the referendum. I do not believe a Referendum Commission set up separately (regardless whether it is set-up by Holyrood or Westminster) is either necessary or expedient. The EC has shown itself perfectly capable of carrying out both UK-wide and devolved referendum oversight without any questions of impartiality.

Q 6: What are your views on which people should be entitled to vote in a Scottish independence referendum?

A: In general terms, those who should be allowed to vote should be the same as those who are eligible to vote in the Scottish Parliamentary elections. I notice that this question omits to respond to a key area of contention, which relates to the age at which people should be allowed to vote. Without entering into the politics (e.g. accusations of opportunism on one side, and of inconsistency by some on the other) my response to this should be understood in the context of my response to Q 4. The franchise arrangements for Scotland-only elections and referenda should be a matter for the Scottish Parliament to decide. On the principle, I believe they should be allowed to lower the voting age to 16 should they so desire, but it should be done for all Scottish elections through an Act of Scottish Parliament at some point within the next twelve months once the Scotland Bill (with my recommended amendments) passes into law.

Q 7: What are your views on the timing of a referendum?

A: This should be a matter principally for the Scottish Parliament. Contrary to the suggestion in the document, there should be no “sunset clause” of any kind in the event the power is extended either through a s30 order or through the Scotland Bill. The SNP have indicated they wish to hold it in the Autumn of 2014, which is a date completely within the scope of their manifesto pledge and they should be entitled to move forward on that basis.

A reasonable restriction may be that the power may only be invoked once in X number of years (to prevent perpetual referendums on the same issue) but as a matter of expediency, that matter should be agreed upon in advance with the Scottish Government. I note that Alex Salmond has said that this issue is very much a “once in a generation” issue and a mandatory interval of between 10-20 years between referendums on Scottish independence would make sense.

Q 8: What are your views on the question or questions to be asked in a referendum?

A: There should be two questions on the ballot. The first should be a question about whether or not Scotland should become an independent sovereign state. The second should read, approximately, “notwithstanding the response given to the first question, should the Scottish Parliament have (e.g.) full taxation powers and extended competence in several other presently reserved areas.” In the event that the first question receives more than 50% of the popular vote the second question should be completely disregarded.

I do not share the view of the UK Government that a second question somehow “complicates” matters, though the ordering and wording of the questions should be very carefully crafted so as to leave absolutely no doubt that, notwithstanding the response to any “devo-max”-esque question, a majority vote for independence will be honoured. The idea that the people of Scotland can't understand a very basic premise of a two-question referendum on connected but alternative propositions is frankly rather insulting. There are only likely to be a maximum of three campaigns anyway (a Yes-Yes, a No-No, and a “Yes to more powers, No to independence”). The “Yes to independence, No to more powers” group would be so ridiculously tiny and arguing almost as obscure a proposition as someone in 1997 saying “there should not be a Scottish Parliament but it should have tax powers”. There are genuine areas in need of clarity here, but the UK Government must desist from looking for obfuscation when it's not actually there.

Q 9: What are your views on the draft section 30 order?

A: The Order in its current form is manifestly inappropriate in light of the various issues I have elaborated upon above. The proposed Schedule 5A has a number of problems which I shall list:

Para 2: It is not necessary to require that a referendum not be held on the same day as other elections. Whilst that may be expedient in and of itself to hold a poll on such an issue outside of other election cycles it is inappropriate to insist on such a provision, especially given that the UK Government only as far back as May 2011 held a referendum on the Alternative Vote at the same time as Scottish Parliamentary elections AND English local council elections. Given Scotland's rather negative experience with multiple polling in 2007 I doubt the Scottish Parliament would seek to hold simultaneous polls in any case.

Para 3: This is a blank sunset clause. There should be no sunset clause on the power to hold a referendum. As I explained earlier a reasonable time provision would be to impose a mandatory waiting time between polls on the subject matter of between 10 and 20 years.

Para 4: This provision seeks to prevent a second question being present on any ballot. For the reasons I gave earlier, this provision should be removed.

Para 5: This limits the franchise to those entitled to vote for “the Parliament”. In the interests of clarity I would insert the word “Scottish”. For the reasons I gave above this may yet involve the lowering of the franchise if you (wisely) reconsider Calman's proposal about devolving the essential components of Scottish Parliamentary and local council elections to Holyrood for consideration.

Para 6: This is a connected issue to Para 5. The thrust of this provision is fine, as long as the relevant derogations are made to allow the Scottish Parliament to make the changes it sees fit in the ordinary course of business rather than simultaneously with the Referendum Bill.