Monday 27 June 2016

Number 10 has a Plan

It is not the case that Number 10 do not have a plan. They have a very clear plan. David Cameron let the cat out of the bag in the House of Commons today. He told Angus Robertson, Leader of the SNP group, that Scotland should want to stay inside two single-markets: the British one and the European one.

Similar, "helpful" questions came from Ken Clarke, who pushed fairly overtly for Parliament's preference (for which read, the least Brexit-like) and Pat McFadden, who asked him if he knew of any country which was admitted to the single market but which did not have to accept free movement of workers (the answer obviously being "no, none").

The Plan

The United Kingdom is going to negotiate to become a member of the European Economic Area, or the EEA. The so-called "Norway" option. There will be some quibbles over the specifics and there may be some variation, but it is what is happening.

The Government is holding-off invoking Article 50 for a very good reason. This is a Brexit Prime Minister's button to push, and the longer it isn't pushed, the less room there is for them to save face without agreeing to a terrible deal. Cameron worked this out when he made his resignation statement on Friday Morning. The only person who can successfully lead the UK out of the EU, in the absence of an EEA offering, is a Tory Prime Minister with a substantial (50+) seat majority. With an EEA offering, the coalition of compromise is there across the parties.

Perhaps most importantly, Cameron has essentially decided that the political price for this decision should be that the Brexit Tories should be the ones to be very clearly and publicly responsible for the reneging on promises about immigration, financial contributions to the single market, and economic instability. Put plainer still, PM Boris Johnson will be the one that is blamed for a generation, by Remainers for taking us out of the EU, and by Leavers for the lies and a settlement that undermines the core of the democratic choice he persuaded them to take.

What would it mean

The ironic thing about the EEA is that it is the solution that does Britain the least economic damage and causes the least disruption, yet it is also the one choice that does the polar opposite of "taking back control". We will find ourselves bound by the vast majority of the legislation passed and promulgated by the Commission, Council and Parliament, but will have zero democratic input into those decisions.

It is true that the UK would regain some control over the fisheries and agriculture policies, but we would probably pay roughly the same membership fee as we do now (per capita, Norway pays more!) and we have to protect most, but not all of the treaty rights to free movement of workers.

What about Scotland?

This is important for Scotland for several reasons.

The UK is leaving the EU

It is now extremely unlikely that the UK will remain in the EU. There is no intention among those who matter to try and outright reverse this result. The priority of those who will be in government has swung firmly behind damage limitation.

Reverse Greenland won't happen

That means that any hopes of Scotland staying in the EU proper, while remaining in the United Kingdom, is unlikely. The only circumstances in which that could happen is if some kind of "reverse Greenland" proposal is agreed, to try to ring-fence membership for the UK that only has territorial application to Scotland, as part of the transition to the EEA.

This is a nice, seductive and attractive idea on the surface, but it's totally unworkable. In reality, it involves either the break-up of the British single market into EU and non-EU zones, or else there is very little that can be offered for Scotland that the EEA doesn't provide already. Differential free movement workers rights within a state would also be a nightmare to get right, albeit the actual border enforcement would not itself be radically different from the Norway/Sweden arrangement.

It also faces considerable political obstacles. The EU will not want to set a precedent whereby states can effectively "opt-out" parts of their state from the most onerous parts of EU membership. To do so would undermine the core objectives of the EU. It would be difficult to reconcile the "rights" of these "within a member-state" member-states in the European Council and its Parliament, and difficult to establish lines of accountability for Treaty obligations. The EU is, first and foremost, a Union of sovereign states, and any suggestion that something different would be arrived at would represent such a fundamental change in its nature as an institution as to justify far wider treaty change.

This is completely against the interests of especially the Eurozone. They seek, if anything, greater flexibility to allow for aggressive integration of its member-states. That is not something that can be done while creating different tiers and types of European Union membership. It is also not something that is likely to be entertained by any other state in the EU with a secession movement, lest differential membership terms be seen as a stepping-stone towards outright independence.

Scotland has to Choose

Given this, Scotland will soon have to make a choice. They will have, in all likelihood, the opportunity to choose between three outcomes:

1. Accept being part of the UK, which is itself a member of the EEA
2. Become an independent state, securing its own EEA membership immediately or almost immediately as an intermediary step to full EU membership; or
3. Negotiating as part of the UK's EEA settlement that Scotland receives accelerated EU membership if it chooses to vote to leave the UK in a second referendum

My Preference

As I have indicated elsewhere, it is now (tentatively) my belief that the third option is the most desirable of those three, but it will be the most complicated to achieve. I also believe that this option has its fewest drawbacks if it transpires that the rest of the UK would be in the EEA rather than a looser arrangement with the rest of Europe. We would still, in those circumstances, functionally retain a single market with the rest of the UK, and would be able to trade with them without any serious impediment. The same, incidentally, would be true of the second of these three options as we'd both have the same relationship with the European single-market.

In many respects, therefore, very little in terms of the economic relationships between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom would stand to change if we seceded. The key impediments to Scottish independence would actually be fundamentally the same as they were in 2014. On the currency, the pound has weakened, albeit it may strengthen in the coming months. Back in 2014 I always said that a separate Scottish currency, initially pegged to either the pound or the Euro, was preferable to a currency union.

I always thought that problem was overblown. It is a necessary challenge that comes with independence, but in the medium term the answer is obvious and it is not clear that it would significantly impede trade. There will be very little pressure for Scotland immediately to join the Euro, not least because of its own current challenges and the pragmatic interests of both Europe and Scotland in finding a responsible way to address Scotland's deficits, which substantially exceed the Exchange Rate Mechanism's minimum requirements.

The fiscal situation is definitely more acute. I am not going to deny that; indeed I have argued at length about it. But that is the case not because of Brexit but those underlying economic conditions. If anything, the effect of our withdrawal from the EU may well affect the balance of tax generated and public spending committed within the United Kingdom substantially. If Scotland makes clear that it intends to be a full member of the EU, rather than just an EEA member, it may stand to benefit from some of the jobs and business, especially in the financial sector, that the UK currently has in London, thus far seen as a "gateway" to the European Union.

Settling the Mandate

What is clear, though, is that Scotland very clearly indicated a preference to be involved in the political institutions of the European Union, rather than just the single market. I think it is necessary, once we know the tenor of the UK's new relationship with the EU, that Scotland should be given a clear opportunity to choose between the two Unions, and the two relationships that come with them.

If it is the view of the people of Scotland that this fiscal transfers enjoyed by Scotland, the stability of a common currency with the rest of the UK, and the new likely control of fisheries and agriculture, are are better option than seeking outright European Union membership, there would in the event of a referendum be a clear choice for those people. You can still vote No. That would provide clarity as to the conflicting two mandates Scotland has issued in the 2014 and 2016 referendums. This is not a vote British Unionists should fear. There would also still be a clear base for all Liberals, keen to keep all of the UK in the EU, the opportunity to make the case for reintegration of each of the respective two states in decades to come, should the EEA prove an unsatisfactory deal.


People have absolutely nothing to fear from another Scottish independence referendum, given the very substantial uncertainty that now afflicts both what it means to persevere with the British Union or to depart from it in favour of the European one. What is different is that we need to know what the depth of feeling of the Scottish people was at, apparently, wishing for a diametrically opposite conclusion to those of the English and Welsh people in relation to the European family. The only way we can resolve that democratic deficit is another referendum.

If the difference between the EEA and the EU really is so shallow that the Scottish people really do not mind, I suspect that the British Union, with its pooling and sharing of resources, would in the minds of the Scottish people outweigh that of Europe. In those circumstances, those who prefer or see their primary loyalty to that Union have absolutely nothing to fear from another plebiscite.

Indeed they may be able to kill Scottish independence for a generation with a second No vote in quick succession. I cannot see what they stand to lose, if they are also passionate Europeans, in those circumstances. For if the Scottish people see the EU as so fundamental that we should leave, then leaving demonstrably would advance those interests and values and that is something we should enable them to do.


The fact that we are negotiating Britain's future in Europe, with a conclusive end-point, in many respects actually removes some of the uncertainty of a future referendum for Scotland. The fact that the UK is having to clarify its terms of departure from the EU makes it much easier for the EU to consider the hypotheticals for Scotland, without hitting opposition from other states. Countries like Spain will be far more willing to entertain "pre-negotiation" for Scotland when they know it only sets a precedent where the parent state is leaving the EU already, because Spain has no intention of leaving the EU.

Imaginative thinking doesn't have to mean delusional thinking in the aftermath of this referendum result. The bottom line is that, once we know what the UK is likely to get as a relationship with the rest of the EU, Scotland must clarify its own trajectory. Not to maintain this is, I'm afraid, simply anti-democratic, and actually will turn Scotland's politics back away from real bread and butter issues.

If you want a neverendum, constitutional uncertainty, and economic insecurity, by all means fight Brexit at a UK level. You will make the job harder to secure an EEA agreement, meaning the rest of the UK will diverge more harshly from the EU, and you will make the break-up of the United Kingdom more likely. You will give the SNP an easy narrative for the next 5 years to avoid accountability on its domestic agenda. And the Scottish people will harbour an unresolved grievance, on both sides of the divide.

I don't want that. I suspect in their heart of hearts, most Unionists don't either.

We can't have both

Sometimes the Scottish Liberal Democrats needs a bucket of ice water dropped on its head.

There was a members meeting on Sunday in Edinburgh in which we were to discuss the way forward. Chatham House rules mean I am restricted in what I can say but I think it's fair for me to outline the broad nature of the challenges that face the party. It is to Willie Rennie's credit that the meeting was called at all, but there was a real feeling among many at that meeting that the party just isn't facing up to the reality of the new constitutional situation that we occupy.

There were arguments that we should continue to fight for the UK to remain in the EU. Effusive praise was lavished on Tim Farron for taking on the mantle of the 48. Surely to goodness followers of Scottish politics of all places should feel uncomfortable with the imagery of that. But the strategy, whilst a good rallying call for the party and its values in England, is a total waste of time in terms of getting something done. Tim Farron is not going to be the next Prime Minister and even if he is he is not going to be able to use a General Election mandate just to "cancel" Brexit without riots in the streets of Northern English cities. The people have spoken.

Not wanting to choose between two uncertainties is a natural human instinct. But you don't always get to decide what decisions you're asked to make. And Scottish Liberals are closer than ever to being forced to choose between a British Union and a European one.

We have to be ready for that eventuality. Putting off deciding is cowardice. And we absolutely have to back a Scottish independence referendum if, and this is the key point, all avenues to keep Scotland in the EU are exhausted.

Willie was very keen after Spring conference to insist that the party had said two contradictory things when it asked to lift a moratorium on fracking while endorsing tougher carbon limits. So he clearly knows that politics is sometimes about making decisions between things that turn out to be incompatible.

A sizeable proportion of the people at Sunday's meeting tried to make that clear: unless the EU comes up with some sort of "reverse Greenland" (almost certainly legally and practically impossible because of both the politics of other member states and because it would rip apart the British single market) all that is left is for Scots to choose between Unions.

That isn't turning to Scottish nationalism or buying into a trap. That's just the choice we have. It is the competing of two different internationalisms, which have more in common with each other than the nascent English nationalism that put us into this sorry mess without so much as a care in the world for how it would affect Scotland.

The unavoidable reality is that we are approaching a situation where the mandate Scotland gave on Thursday is incompatible with the mandate it gave in September 2014 and the mandate England and Wales gave on Thursday. The core premises upon which that 2014 mandate was undertaken are now void. Hundreds of thousands of the 2 million people who vote No were materially influenced by the fact that a No vote would secure Scotland's place in the EU. The EU is constitutionally significant in a way literally not one single other international organisation is. It lives and breathes through our laws, our politics, our constitutional politics, and the nature of what it means for Britain to be a common endeavour. The No vote was not a vote to endorse the British project as it existed in 1970, or even 1707. It was to endorse it, with its fundamentals, as at 2014.

The only solution, the only way to reconcile those mandates, if staying in the UK means Scotland is not in the EU, is another independence referendum.

I know it's not reasonable to expect people who feel a close emotional attachment to the UK to campaign against it. But to be against even making the choice is an even more terrible stance for a democratic and European party to take. Opposing a referendum in any circumstances makes it absolutely certain that we are anti-Europe unless the UK does a volte-face. That is simply unacceptable to me and to hundreds of other members and I suspect thousands of supporters.

The Parliamentary party are terrified they'll lose trust in the electorate if they break a manifesto promise not to support another referendum. They ignore the fact that the vast majority of the electorate didn't vote for them anyway. In times of constitutional crisis, all bets are off.

They are taking the wrong lesson from the tuition fees debacle. The crime was not breaking the pledge; it was making a pledge that in the circumstances it was designed to be relevant for was totally unsustainable. It's time we level with the public that we made an error on May. Because we did.

At the very least the Scottish Lib Dems have to support another independence referendum. My judgment now is that liberalism is best served by Scotland seeking an undertaking for accelerated admission as an independent member into the EU, or even in the worst case scenario applying as a new member. I understand that on that aspect many liberals will vigorously disagree, and understandably. That is why we need a Special Conference, both to establish whether and what the official party position should be in a future referendum, and to make it clear in any motion that members and Parliamentarians are free to campaign as their conscience dictates.

To oppose the choice is itself to choose however. And it's the wrong choice. At the very least Scotland needs the chance to decide which internationalism it prioritises. And if that is internationalism with the other nations of the British Isles so be it.

Those turning to independence were implicitly accused at points that they were showing a lack of imagination, buying into Scottish nationalist narratives. Frankly I think the opposite is true: holding steadfast to the two Unions position isn't a display of imagination but of delusion. Imagination needs to have practical import and we are the only ones at the moment willing to imagine where this crisis is actually heading.

I didn't say it at the meeting because I spoke early in the day and I wanted to be constructive, but if this party fights against a second referendum even when that referendum is in the interest of liberalism and Scotland, I am leaving it. I've given it several last chances to show courage on the constitution, and it has disappointed me time and time again.

Thursday 2 June 2016

Would the First Minister please grow-up?

The purpose of First Minister's Questions is to allow the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise the policy decisions and implementation of the Scottish Government. This is vital in representative democracy. Governments, even those with the support of the majority of members of Parliament or even, dare I say it, the majority of the electorate, still are not perfect, and their judgment and their competence has to be kept under constant scrutiny. That is why a Parliament exists at all, rather than that we just let the government pass legislation uninhibited for a five-year term.

Just because you've won one, or two, or three elections, does not mean that you can or should just do whatever you like. Nor does it mean that everyone who voted for you agrees with everything, or even most, of what your platform for government entailed. Of course you are entitled to attempt to implement as much of that as possible, but popular support is not, in and of itself, a justification for making any policy decision whatsoever. Being popular does not mean that your judgment is good, or that your ideas are good, or that the way you put them into practice is good. And it is no defence to the accusation that your record or decisions are bad to say "but your decisions are worse".

To this end, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has continued into this Parliament one of the most nauseating and childish tendencies of Scottish politics. Whenever she was questioned about her record in the last Parliament, her response was often to boast "we won the election" or "your party is a mess as we beat you". As several commentators observed in the election itself, she said she was happy to be judged on her record in government precisely because she knew that those planning to vote for her mostly would do so regardless or in spite of it.

"My manifesto" is not an answer

Today in Parliament, Patrick Harvie drew attention to a report on poverty, the findings of which the First Minister had agreed to implement. It stated, in relation to local taxation, that the council tax was "no longer fit for purpose" and was hugely regressive. This was a position the SNP had actually held for some time, and in the past Nicola Sturgeon herself had said that the council tax should be replaced with something fairer. However, the SNP government, after 9 years in charge, chose only marginally to tinker with council tax, making it slightly less unfair instead of replacing it outright.

He asked her why she wouldn't take the opportunity to be bolder, in light of that report, and abolish council tax in favour of a more radical alternative. This was Nicola Sturgeon's response:

"We put forward our plans, plans that I believe were bold. Patrick Harvie put forward his plans, and the electorate cast their votes. I'm standing here as First Minister with a mandate to take forward the proposals that we were elected on."

This is not an answer to Patrick Harvie's question. She provided no substantive argument as to why a more radical alternative would be a worse policy. There is no point in First Ministers Questions if the response we are going to get to substantive criticisms of her government's platform is "I was elected to implement my government's platform and we won." Just because you have an electoral mandate to do something, doesn't mean you should do it. Bad ideas are bad ideas regardless of how many people support them. The mantra of Keynes that when the facts change so should your mind is important.

Governments are supposed to be responsive to evidence and criticism and to explain why they are doing what they are doing and just as importantly why they are not doing what they are not doing. No one is questioning Nicola Sturgeon's authority simply to tinker with council tax. Harvie was questioning why that's what she wants to do. Just because she won the election doesn't mean that Parliament, and the people, are not entitled to an answer to that question. And she has, or at least gave, no answer.

"Your point is invalid because I have more votes than you"

Similarly, Willie Rennie asked the First Minister about a Memorandum of Understanding entered into between Nicola Sturgeon and two Chinese companies for £10 billion of unspecified infrastructure projects in Scotland. Those companies were SinoFortone group and the China Railway No 3 Engineering Group. The parent company of the latter has been implicated in corruption charges and human rights abuses in various projects, including a number in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rennie sought assurances that no government contracts would be awarded to this company, which has been heavily criticised by other countries, and was in fact blacklisted by the Norwegian state oil fund. He also drew attention to Amnesty International's criticisms of the company and the reasons they gave why economic cooperation with CRG was bad for human rights.

Sturgeon's response?

"Hold the front page. First Minister of Scotland seeks to explore opportunities for investment and jobs into Scotland. SHOCK HORROR. That is part of the job of First Minister of this country and the fact that Willie Rennie doesn't recognise that is a core responsibility of the First Minister is probably part of the reason why he will never stand here as First Minister of this country."
The only people impressed with a response like that must be those that unthinkingly clap their seal-like flippers for hands to absolutely anything she says. Literally no one that criticises a trade deal on the grounds of its human rights implications doesn't think it's the responsibility of a government to attract inward investment. What the question asked was about was the kind of compromises the First Minister was prepared to make in order to procure that investment, or the lack of due diligence undertaken before signing the Memorandum of Understanding. Instead, we get a response that basically amounts to "I got more votes than you so you can't criticise me ne-ne-ne ne-ne-ne". It's risible.

Just not good enough

This represents a hubristic tendency in the SNP leadership that basically thinks it does not need to accept or respond to the substance of criticism because 41.7% of the electorate voted for them.

One could just about understand the logic of "I hear what you're saying but I don't care, we have a mandate and we will implement it anyway" when the SNP held a majority of the seats at Holyrood. It's a crap argument, but at least in a technical sense, they could do what they liked under the terms of our representative democracy. It is easy to forget that if you're playing the top-trumps "the people agree" card, more than 50% of those who voted did not support an SNP candidate. The people do not completely and unconditionally agree with them.

But especially now that they have lost their majority, the SNP do not have a mandate to implement all of their proposals. They have a mandate to try, but a minority government has not just a functional, but a moral imperative to listen to criticism on the substance of what they are doing and why they are doing it, and not simply to waive away criticism with "we won you lost".

The Scottish Parliament was supposed to herald a new politics. A break from the yah-booh childishness of Westminster. Yet our First Minister approaches her responsibility to account for her policies and decisions in Parliament with the mentality of a four-year-old child in the playground. For the sake of Scotland, it's time she grew up and dealt with criticisms of her government maturely instead of adopting an unwarranted indignance at the audacity of opposition parties to criticise decisions taken under her watch.