Tuesday 28 December 2010

Painting an election picture

I thought that the die for the coming election had been all but set, with the debate ranged wide and narrow about SNP competence in Government versus Labour's distinct unfitness for office; about SNP progressive politics putting Scotland first versus Labour's greet that they're "no in poo'er enny mair"; Labour's lack of any kind of policy platform from which to launch their vision of a Scotland better than it is versus the SNP's eagerness to continue the job that's started, barrel Scotland along the road of progressive and far-sighted politics that are designed to make this a more socially just and inclusive Scotland and which will allow for greater equality and a far greater range of social mobility.  I thought it was set, but both Iain Gray and Danny Alexander have set out to prove me wrong.

Iain Gray, if I may resort to the vernacular, spat the dummy in a weekend interview, failing to see that personal invective is neither an eloquent nor an adequate response to the charge that he simply is not capable of taking power and running Scotland well.  He appears to fail to understand that the charge is not that he will not take an interesting photocall (the politician who doesn't take such photocalls either disdains the electorate or does not understand public politics), but that the charge is that he is not and will not be in a position of leadership even within his own party and that this indicates a failure of leadership, a tragic and fatal flaw in his political career - he will not need to echo Sherman, he is playing Coriolanus within his own party and will fall at the hands of his new allies having abandoned his old allies in that nest of vipers.  The appropriate response to his immature outburst, I thought, was dignified silence but I think that the Worrier of the Lallands Peat may have bested me with an appropriate festive ditty.

It is Danny Alexander, though, whose attitude is most rank and malodorous.  While there is a political debate on whether the cuts being imposed by the current Tory/Lib Government are, as he argues, "common-sense" and "unavoidable" (and that debate is raging at present) or even whether the cuts imposed by the previous Labour Government of roughly two-thirds the size of these were "common-sense" and "unavoidable", surely there is no-one who could possibly imagine that they are "progressive" as that word is used in politics nor that they can in any way be described as "civilised"?  To read Mr Alexander's quotes in this article, as he glibly attributes the pains of poverty to losing control of macrofiscal policy and skites blithely by the effects of the spending cuts on people's jobs and public services with the reassurance that he "was aware" of them, is to realise that he lacks any degree of empathy with the people facing this from the wrong end of his barrel.  It's not clear whether he knows what progressive politics consists of nor whether he has any idea, it's the fact he doesn't care; he is, to borrow an old turn of phrase, 'stepping over the homeless on the way to the opera'.  I don't think people mind the cuts as much as they despise the attitude with which they are being handed down, they don't object to the economic policies so much as they object to the social policies and the social engineering behind those economic policies.  They still object to the cuts but they don't mind them as much as they object to the expectoration that comes with them and the suspicion that micturition will follow it.

I saw an interview with John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue magazine, this morning on BBC Breakfast where he was talking about radical reform of the welfare state.  He was saying that the welfare state is of no use if it doesn't make benefit recipients stronger and more able to fend for themselves, that its aim appears to be as much and perhaps more about keeping the poor down than about alleviating poverty.  It was an interesting and thought-provoking item but one visualisation he used struck me as particularly apt when thinking about the policies of the current UK Government and the one which immediately preceded it.  I'm paraphrasing but fairly accurately - "if the safety net is made of concrete you're finished when you hit it".

We may live in interesting times but I hope we avoid times of barbarous government.  We face an election next year where the Lib Dems are the axemen of the current Tory UK Government whose policies are anything but progressive or civilised and who are only a different hue of the previous Labour Government whose shadows still hang in the air.  In Scotland Labour feigns anger for whatever was in the morning paper or was overheard on the morning bus; turning to rattle the cages of sections of the electorate it believes belongs to it with faux-left rhetoric while it is happy to skip hand-in-hand with the two coalition partners when modesty suits in order to attempt to inflict party political defeats on the SNP Scottish Government.  In their unholy trinity it seems we can all too often hear them cry havoc and let slip their dogs of war.  I thought the land was laid for the coming election but Labour and the Lib Dems seem intent on divesting themselves of as many opportunities as possible, it may be that this election will come down to the pitched battle and the ideological clash between those in Government in Edinburgh and those in Government in London - and all for the command of the future direction of politics in Scotland.  These barricades will be hard to defend, the structure of the Parliamentary and Governmental power under devolution does not contain the strength to protect Scotland, but it will be the style and manner of our victory and the size of our winning margin that determines for us as the SNP, and for us as the people of Scotland, which direction we must take next.

Monday 20 December 2010

Tuition fees

A thought, a thought ...

If you consider Further and Higher Education to be public services then why is that some people think that students, almost uniquely, should pay an additional tax for receiving that service?  If you have the need to call for the assistance of a constable you would not expect to find upon receipt of your next payslip that you were paying more tax.  If you have the misfortune to require hospital attention you would be surprised to be landed with a bill as you were sent home to recuperate (leaving aside, for the moment, those PFI monsters which charge for access to a television, for parking, and for anything else they can get away with - thus 'almost uniquely).  Walking home of an evening using the pavement and the streetlights does not incur an additional charge.  Having snow cleared from your path by serving soldiers brought from barracks for the purpose does not leave you with a burden of debt to repay.  Using our public libraries will not bankrupt you.  Sending children to school does not incur result in a higher rate of tax for decades after they leave.

Why should students be singled out?  They have higher earnings over their lifetimes?  They'll pay more tax in a progressive system (actually, they'd pay more tax in a flat rate system as well, but I prefer the idea of progressive taxation, it seems fairer).  Others don't get the benefit of that education?  Yes we do - in the form of doctors, engineers of all kinds, teachers, plumbers, electricians, nurses, town planners (give them a wee break), geologists (they find things that we need, you know), philosophers, and even lawyers - although universities do also produce economists, there's a fly in every ointment.

Of course, there's always the argument that Further and Higher Education don't constitute public services but in that case why do we give them any public money at all?  Tuition fees have no place in public education and we should pay for Further and Higher Education out of general taxation because they're part of our civilisation and tax is the price we pay for civilisation.  You need a tax system which is fair and raises enough money of course - you wouldn't want to try to run a country on a block grant - and you'd need to be prepared to invest for years before you saw the benefits, but that's OK, the sooner you start the sooner you benefit.

Monday 1 November 2010

Labour, Labour on the wall...

Remember in the 2007 Scottish Parliament General Election Labour broadcast a message that insisted that an SNP victory in that campaign would result in a tax rise of £5,000 for every family in Scotland.  It wasn't a costed claim, no details were ever offered, it was just a figure pulled out of the air, and Scottish-controlled taxes have actually gone down in real terms with a council tax freeze (as well as measures which save the poor money like the reduction in prescription charges).  It was ironic that the claim was being made at the same time as Labour was proposing changes to the Council Tax banding which would see some houses' bills go through the roof without benefiting any other households.

We appear to have round two of the madness now with Labour proposing Council Tax rises and coming up with an uncosted wishlist of their own which, it turns out after the SNP costed it, would result in a tax rise of about £3,000 for each Scottish household.  It can't just be me who wonders why, when Scotland's public purse is facing massive cuts, Labour thinks it appropriate to give every 18-year old a year's free subscription to the newspaper of their choice (unless it's an attempt to get favourable headlines) or to extend free travel to include trains as well as buses or why Labour thinks that Scotland needs yet another commissioner.  Nor can I see why students should be entitled to a guaranteed £7,000 income while studying nor why Labour thinks that young people who want to volunteer need an organisation to support them.

The clock, it would seem, continues to tick but Labour is falling further and further away from reality.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Who said we should?

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, set up to, among other things, make the expenses system of MPs more transparent, costs £7million per year to run compared to the old fees office which cost a mere £2million a year.  One of the things it demands of MPs, though, is timeous delivery of details of their expenses claims.  A friend of mine submitted a freedom of information request asking for details of the expenses scheme for IPSA staff, the actual expenses paid to IPSA staff, and a reason why senior staff business costs have not been published on the IPSA website as promised.

You would imagine that IPSA would want to reply promptly, wouldn't you?  The answer was due on the 15th of October - my friend is still waiting.  Getting a little irate, he's lodged a complaint with the ICO (good luck with that, I've been waiting two years for a judgement from them).  Neither organisation, apparently, practices what it preaches, and neither lives up to the standards they expect of others.

For the avoidance of doubt, my friend who made the request and the complaint is not a politician, is not employed by a politician, isn't employed by any political party and, in fact, is not employed in politics at all, he's just a chap who gets cheesed off at waste in the public sector.  More power to him and others like him, I say.

Sunday 24 October 2010

It's piqued my curiosity

I was having a wee look at the opinion poll done by Yougov for the Scotsman and noticed something that made me look again.  Remember the constituency polling figures were SNP 34%, Lab 40% Con 14%, LD 8%, but the unweighted figures were SNP 506, Lab 403, Con 138, LD 78 (no unweighted figures given for the Greens) - that would give the SNP 45% of the distribution among the four largest parties, Labour just under 36%, Conservatives just over 12% and the LibDems 7%.

I appreciate why the weighting is done and how it should increase the accuracy of the poll but I question whether Yougov might have gone a little far.  The change made by the weighting saw the SNP have 113 votes removed while the three other parties all saw increases (the LibDem vote wasn't increased by enough to make a difference to the percentage they got but it was increased).  If memory serves, Yougov has been a little off in its Scottish weighting before.  It's just a wee question I've got hanging about there, but maybe Scotland's Party is actually ahead just now.  Of course, even if the poll with its strange weighting is accurate, we're still ahead of where we were in November of 2006 when the SNP was at 32% in the constituency vote and 28% in the regional vote compared to the current 34% and 31%.

Och, what an interesting wee time we have ahead of us!

Thursday 14 October 2010

The Madness of Money

Politics became lost at the end of 1976. That’s when the Labour Government of the day finally realised that it had lost control of public spending, messed up the economy and sent the UK into chaos (something they’d been arguing about for a year by that time); it’s when Denis Healey, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, went to the IMF to ask for a loan to keep the state afloat until the revenues from the North Sea started rolling in. It’s also when the UK found out that the IMF doesn’t give loans without collateral and that the mortgage terms were not exactly easy. Enter Dr Johannes Witteveen, born in Zeist, former Finance Minister of the Netherlands and economics professor in Rotterdam turned Managing Director of the IMF, who made himself comfy at the Cabinet table, got a wee cup of tea and a couple of chocolate digestives and set about curing Labour’s mess.

The IMF administered a medicine that tasted bitter – sour enough to poison the well from which the Labour Government and the trade unions had been drinking, vicious enough to last into the Winter of Discontent, the fall of the Labour Government and the rise of Margaret Thatcher. Healey had promised the Labour party conference of 76 that there would be no new spending cuts just as his Prime Minister had been telling the BBC that only Labour could dig the UK out of the financial mess that Labour had got it into and Labour conference was voting to nationalise the major banks and a big skelp of the insurance industry. It seems that some things, indeed, never change. The measures brought by Dr Witteveen changed the course of the UK monetary policy abruptly and, it might be said, viciously but they did more – they also changed the nature of political debate in the UK; no longer were the big debates about different ideologies and different policies, the debates became about the money needed to fund policies rather than about the policies themselves – a phenomenon nicely described a while back by Ian Bell of the Herald as “budgets driving policies instead of policies driving budgets”.

The refrain of ‘how much does it cost?’ often drowns out any intelligent policy debate which may be going on and it’s been constant for all of my active political life, sometimes focussed, acute and at the forefront, often obtuse, monotonous and draining – the muzak of politics in the UK, and just as enervating.

It’s why the debate on Scottish independence has descended into a fiscal rammy. It’s why the debate over nuclear weapons often finds itself in the grey cul-de-sac of arguments over what the money could be better spent on rather than why we have the things in the first place. It’s why George Osborne can cut Child Benefit and not get roasted. It’s why we find even the sensible and dedicated politicians in the SNP getting caught up in it, promising that any Barnett consequentials resulting from the UK’s spending review will be spent on health but not why. It’s why the future of Higher Education has been reduced, in political discourse, to arguments about funding. It’s why the to and fro over private prisons is about money more than effectiveness. It’s why so much has been privatised, tendered out, outsourced, and driven away from the public realm. The debates are no longer about what should be done, they’re all about where to spend money.

Now we have the monster of all fiscal panics for politicians frightened of policy debates to hide behind, cowering from the responsibility of engaging in an exchange of ideas, shirking the duty of examining the options presented and, instead, arguing about which pot to put the pennies in – and which pot to empty. That robs us of the political discourse that should inform our decisions and it squeezes the civic discourse which should guide us forward; it’s the equivalent of putting your hands over your eyes and thinking that if you don’t look then the scary thing won’t be there. The truth is, though, that the curtains are still moving and when our eyes are finally opened we might be staring at a landscape that we don’t recognise, didn’t choose and don’t want – and there’s always the danger, remote as it may be, that while our attention is diverted someone with their hands on the controls of government pulls us away and away and away from where we would rather go, celebrating each little victory with the joy of la petite mort and leaving us moving ever so slowly towards une grande mort.

It was Curran who said; "It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt", so let’s take his advice and remain vigilant, let’s start taking back some of that discourse, let’s reclaim our right to politics and political debate never free from economic and fiscal considerations but not dominated by them either. Let’s have a look first at a couple of areas which have been blanketed and smothered by the fiscal argument in recent times and see if there is a political debate beneath them.

Why is it that university students and graduates, uniquely (I think) among users of our public services were required, and the argument appears to be getting made now that they should in future be required, to spend years repaying the cost of the public service they receive – over and above the taxation on their incomes? We don’t face a bill for calling the police, we don’t get slapped with a cost when using social services, we don’t face tuition fees in schools and we don’t have to pay to see a doctor, why are university graduates singled out? The usual argument floated is that they gain lifelong benefits from the education and they earn more over their working lives (the government estimate of additional earnings has shrunk somewhat and now stands at around £100,000 – you’d probably get a better return over your working life from putting your tuition fee in the bank). The usual riposte to that claim is that society benefits as well and income tax from those additional earnings goes to help fund state operations. It’s a ping-pong, so let’s try a different approach.

If you gain lifelong benefits and additional earnings from a university education, don’t you gain the same from life-saving medical treatment? In this instance life itself is a benefit and any money earned is, of course, more than would have been earned without the life-saving treatment – why is the patient not presented with a bill? What about the lifelong benefits and additional earnings of going to school – why are they not charged separately? What about the benefits and additional earnings that come from maintaining good health by having clean streets and a decent rubbish collection service? Of course, there was an attempt made at one point to introduce an individualised charge which would recognise the benefits of life under Scotland’s local authority system, it didn’t go down too well as I remember.

More pointedly, perhaps, why is there no talk of a graduate tax for college students who also get lifelong benefits and additional earnings, or an apprentice tax for apprentices, or one for those trained on the job at public expense? Why are university graduates singled out? They shouldn’t be.

Universities are autonomous bodies, not strictly part of the public sector but largely funded through the state. If we agree that government should fund universities to teach our people then we are agreeing that universities should be regarded as part of the public sector and there is no reason why one of our people being taught in one area of the public sector should have different terms and conditions to another. If we believe that all of us should be treated equally by the state then the arguments for tuition fees, graduate taxes, graduate payments and the like all fall away. Unless, of course, we decide that others who receive public services should pay for them individually.

There is the growing “woe is me” with universities arguing that they can’t keep up with the funding that English universities get through central funding and fees and that this will worsen when the expected changes are made south of the border in response to the Browne report. Anton Muscatelli has even suggested that Glasgow University might go pop on his watch because it runs out of money unless it can charge large tuition fees (I wonder how it managed to survive all of the 559 years it has been around) and Andrew Cubie of the infamous Graduate Endowment has suggested a Graduate Tax is the only way to match England’s march to wealth. You would think, if you listen to well-paid professional academics, that Scotland’s universities have been ill-served by everyone who has come near – the truth is slightly different.

Vince Cable and David Willets cut £449 million of funding from the English universities in June – to add to the cuts that Mandelson had already made, and that’s not all. In 1998/99, the year that tuition fees were introduced in England, the teaching grant for England’s universities was £4.68 billion. For this academic year teaching grant and government-funded fees amount to £5.1 billion - that’s a real-terms cut of £1.1 billion – 17% of what the English teaching grant would have been if it had just kept pace with inflation. Universities UK in evidence to the Browne Report estimated that fees will bring in £1.5 billion this year to universities and colleges. Tuition fees haven’t added to the income of English universities, they’ve reduced government funding and instead dipped into the pockets of the students.

In Scotland the teaching grant for 1998/99 was £435 million and research and strategic change grants took the total up to £574 million. Grants for infrastructure were embedded into these grants at that time and they have continued to be done that way. This year’s General Fund allocation included £666 million for teaching and £241 million for research as part of the overall £988 million grant – a real terms increase of £243 million, representing a 42% real terms increase in government funding. We should also remember that some Higher Education is delivered in Further Education institutions which have a separate funding stream so the actual spend on Higher Education in Scotland is higher than this.

There are 131 Higher Education Institutions in England and 19 in Scotland (20 if you count the Open University); English universities receive just under £39 million each on average from central government while Scottish universities receive £52 million each on average. Scottish universities get better central government funding than English universities and even adding tuition fees on to the income of the English universities they still lag behind their Scottish counterparts by a couple of million pounds each. I suspect that the poverty pleas from our universities do not quite match the reality and they give no indication of the contribution to our society made by our universities. Universities who still worry do, of course, always have the option of following the example set by the University of Buckingham. Founded about 30 years ago, it is completely independent of government, takes no government money and is not directed in any way by government. If you want to go there you pay the fees – approaching £18,000 for the degree done over two years, four terms a year. It isn’t clear whether any Scottish university might be keen to work this way.

What is clear, though, is that Scotland doesn’t have a university funding gap and doesn’t need tuition fees, graduate taxes or any of the rest of the vaguely daft ideas that are floating around. What we do need is a debate about the value added by universities and by study – the economic value to the individual is bandied around endlessly (and the figures change endlessly), we hear no shortage of that because it suits the purposes of those who want to change the way in which their studies are funded – but we do not hear much about the value added to society by the doctors and engineers and teachers and physicists and geologists who are trained, little about whether an educated society is a happier society, and almost nothing about the benefits to the host city or town of having a university.

There is no proper debate, either about whether we should have more than half of our young people going to university, about where that target came from and what its purpose is, it was a target that seemed to appear without much discussion and with little explanation of its purpose or intent. Reference was made to the Scandinavian countries who have higher HE participation rates than us but no case was made about why it was desirable for us to aspire to higher rates. We have seen a proliferation of degree courses, some of which have been roundly mocked and some of which you could argue should not be degree courses; and we have seen increases in the number of universities. I find myself wondering whether the post 92 universities actually offer more than they did in their previous incarnations; they hand out degrees now but are those degrees more valuable than the qualifications they handed out before? Are their students better educated or better trained than they were before? These debates simply aren’t being had – no long-term view about how we improve Higher Education can be knocked back and forth without the Scrooges muttering dire warnings, lisping portents of doom and ignoring Marley’s warning.

We can’t accept that as being good enough, we can’t simply allow policy to be driven by budgets, we must get back to discussing what should be done, what needs to be done, and how we need things to change for the better then we can discuss how we find the resources to do those things. Not only is the cart before the horse just now, the horse is still behind a bolted stable door.

While we’re talking about universities and colleges, let’s take a minute to think about the students. They end up paying dearly for their education with a student loan debt that is, to all intents and purposes, a small mortgage secured on their future. The arguments rehearsed earlier about tuition fees and graduate contributions apply here as much as they do there – why is this group of people being singled out to have to pay for the public service they receive? There are additional points to consider as well, though, points which perhaps indicate how much of a disservice student loans do our country.

Their repayments limit the disposable income that graduates have, thereby creating a drag on the economy – if that disposable income was spent by those young professionals (by and large graduates fit that description) while they have a bit of space in their lives it would help to drive our economy forward. Instead it is simply recycled as an additional tax.

The burden of the repayments also means that graduates are less able to move on with their lives, it’s harder to get into the housing market, it’s more of a decision to have children, and so on – slowing down many of the drivers of national growth that we need.

Debt has been shown to be a disincentive to study for those from a non-traditional university background and student loans represent the biggest debt that a student will accumulate in Scotland during their study – student loans reduce social mobility.

Finally, though, the one dichotomy which might be found to be the hardest to reconcile is the strangeness of the contrast with those who are unemployed. When one of our citizens is unemployed and seeking work we, quite rightly, support them with benefits to a degree. It simply isn’t the life of ease that some suggest over and over again but it is a contribution from the state to the wellbeing of that person and their family which is, usually, a grant of money. Why is there not a readiness to offer that same contribution to students? Why is it that we have a state prepared to give money in a grant form to those who are workless but that same state refuses to offer similar assistance to other, similar people who happen to be studying in order to improve themselves and, in the process, are making themselves more work-ready? If we can fund a jobseeker for a while why should we not fund a student for a while? We don’t ask the jobseeker to repay their benefits when they get into work, relying instead on the taxes they pay to fill that gap – why should the same principles not apply to students? Why should these two groups of people be differentiated in the eyes of the state?

In the maelstrom of speculation about cuts that we’re experiencing just now there are stories and rumours aplenty but little hard evidence of anything at all. In the midst of it, though, we’ve continued to avert our eyes from that most important of things – political and policy debate, discussion about how we move our country forward. We’re captured by those who want a fiscal fight and imprisoned by those who ask the price rather than the value. We should retake our politics, retake our public discourse, reclaim our right to test our opinions against those of others. We do ourselves down by always counting pennies and never dreaming dreams, we’ll do better when we dare to dream again and dare to test ourselves against our fellow human beings. Scotland will do better when we dare to reach out and grasp the thistle of ideas instead of always checking for the pocketbook.

As MacDiarmid would have it:
O Scotland is
THE barren fig
Up, carles, up,
And round it jig!
A miracle’s
Oor only chance.
Up. Carles, up
And let us dance!

Monday 4 October 2010

An economic future

So, the GERS ping-pong and similar spats are fiscal arguments rather than economic debates, and GERS, in particular, is a sterile fiscal argument that ignores much of how nations operate, ignores, indeed, how the UK operates. If you want a different look at deficits and what they mean I can think of no better recommendation than watching my old friend from school, Professor Mark Blyth – he’s an economist but he’s not bad really. So what would constitute a fair economic future for Scotland? How would we measure economic optimism and pessimism, how do we judge the actual economic debate? How do we lay down the parameters of economic viability for an independent Scotland?

Well, we’re talking not about whether we’d be fabulously wealthy or miserably poor, not about the current performance or the recent performance, nor even about whether we have the right or the wrong politicians. An economy ready to face the world as a tool of an independent country must have a wide base, a good variety of inputs and outputs; it must range across the whole country – it is likely to have different strengths in different parts of the country, and different aspects will be at different strengths in different parts of the country; it should have flexibility – the ability to change as needed; and there should be strength in depth in the major fields of the economy. To some extent, the space to grow in each of these categories can replace the need to have the capacity but throughout all of them there must be an element of resilience, without which the economy would be too fragile to be useful. The rate of business creation and attrition must play some part in the decisions on growth and resilience, and there will be other measures which can be added in as we come to them.

There are other ways of measuring innate economic strength, one of which, Natural Capital Accounting, was used by Slesser, King and Crane in the mid 1990s on a study of the possible future economy of an independent Scotland where the conclusion was that independence would be good for Scotland’s economy and would help the sustainability of Scotland in the longer term. Malcolm Slesser was an SNP member and stood for the party in parliamentary elections and he was also a respected academic. That isn’t the only alternative way of measuring an economy there are others, but let’s stick with the few measures mentioned earlier. The debate about measuring the economy will, no doubt, carry on for some time yet and I’ll content myself in the meantime with fashioning my own argument which will, no doubt, evolve over time.

The first point of inquiry, then, is does the Scottish economy engage its population? Labour market statistics in the process of being published (covering May to July 2010) as I write this show an economic activity rate of 77.5% for those of working age (slightly higher in men, slightly lower in women). The 22.5% inactive will include students, homemakers (a word I detest but can think of no other at present), those in ill-health and those who act as a carer for a relative or otherwise unable to work, but it represents 764,000 who are economically inactive. There are about 200,000 Scottish domiciled students in our universities and about 80,000 full time students in our colleges (roughly one tenth of Scotland’s working age population is enrolled in our colleges in one way or another) and there’s about 77,000 pupils still at school after reaching 16. I can’t, at the moment, find figures for the number of carers, people incapacitated through ill-health, or homemakers so can’t quantify them so they stay in the figures for now, leaving about 400,000 working-age Scots economically inactive although only 239,000 are declared as unemployed.

That seems a bit of flab in the economy and cause for a little concern. It’s not a new phenomenon, either, data going back to 2002 show that 74% was the norm for a while and a range between there and 77% held sway until the end of 2006. Economic activity rates went over 78% for a while but fell back and are actually recovering now and even excluding students and stay-on pupils, we still have around 12% of our working-age population economically inactive. That is always going to be an unused resource, if not an actual drain on our economy, and should be addressed, and that’s before you add in the citizens of this nation who are over 65. It’s interesting that it has been almost static for so long – the difference between the 74% and the current 77.5% representing around 119,000 people – quite a chunk but only just over a fifth of what it was and a quarter of the gap that still exists. It’s interesting, also, in that it suggests that the recession has not had a massively deleterious effect on our economic activity; that the Scottish economy has actually held up – in these terms – relatively strongly. There is the question of whether the economic activity is high value, and whether the overall value of economic activity in Scotland has been affected but, in terms of whether people are actually engaged in the economy, it is quite a good news story.

Additionally, it suggests that there is a workforce available for growth in the economy (disregarding, for the moment, whether that workforce has the skills that the growing sectors of the economy will need or whether it is distributed well in the geographical areas in which growth is likely to happen) and that employment growth is not just possible but desirable.

The next question would seem to be where those people are employed, both in sector terms and geographically – how wide a base does our economy have?

Excluding central and local government, there are 291,380 enterprises in Scotland (up by 12,000 since 2007 and up by 55,000 since 2000 - 2009 figures, 2010 figures are due soon) of which two thirds are sole traders and nearly 92,000 are small businesses employing fewer than 50 people each. There are 2,315 businesses in Scotland which employ more than 250 people each and 3,640 which employ between 50 and 249 people each. That’s a good spread and suggests a degree of resilience with the spread of employment allowing a few bumps and bruises to be managed. I’m impressed with the number of Scots who have their own businesses, too – giving a lie, I think, to the oft-repeated comment that we’ve lost our entrepreneurial spirit. 193,550 sole traders and 91,875 small businesses suggest a couple of hundred thousand self-employed people in Scotland - actual figures might be skewed by individuals owning more than one business, for example, or by partnership owning. These are all, however, businesses which reported turnover so no shelf companies are in those numbers.

The sector spread is quite wide based, no over-reliance on any one sector, the smallest sector in terms of numbers being “financial intermediation” with about 3,250 companies, followed by “mining and quarrying, utilities” with around 3,350.

Likewise, the numbers employed in these enterprises are well spread, the smallest sector being the motor trade with 45,350 employees, manufacturing having 224,170 employees, agriculture 60,570, and so on – a wide, comfortable and accommodating spread. There’s not enough information in the Corporate Sector statistics to get to in-depth information about oversupply or gaps in provision so I’ll leave that aside just now and perhaps return to it later.

The number of private sector businesses increased by 3.3% between March 2008 and March 2009 and it was small firms that accounted for almost all of that rise while those private sector enterprises created more employment over that year – a 2.2% increase. It suggests a strong economy that can keep growing in the face of the economic difficulties which were becoming more than apparent over that year – and a self-confidence in Scots that allowed people to stride out on their own.

Most of our business sector is home grown too – only 3.1% of businesses operating in Scotland are owned outwith the country (and that doesn’t take account of those shareholders who own shares in these companies and live in Scotland. The difficulty I find is that these external companies (including those owned elsewhere in the UK) account for more than a third of Scotland’s private sector employment – 35.3% - and 52.4% of turnover of private sector enterprises in Scotland (23.7% for businesses owned in the rest of the UK, 28.7% for businesses owned elsewhere in the world). Granted, they tend to be the bigger businesses (supermarkets spring to mind, for example) and that some of them might have started as Scottish businesses (Kwik-Fit, for example, now owned by a French company), but it appears a bit of a weakness that so much of the business transacted here is in companies owned elsewhere. Cross-border ownership is fine (Scots companies do it too) and their very presence here indicates a strength in our economy but the profits made from the business transacted go elsewhere and I cannot escape the feeling that we should be looking to grow indigenous companies to balance it a little more in Scotland’s favour.

That, of course, once more ignores the shareholders who live in Scotland but have shares in companies furth of Scotland. It also excludes financial intermediation enterprises (banks, credit institutions, leasing, insurance, pensions, securities, fund management, stuff related to these sectors and so on) because the turnover data of these institutions is not presented in a way which can be absorbed into the figures, so that may nudge things a little more in Scotland’s direction.

RBS announced £1.6bn in operating profits earlier this year (while it considers legal action against Goldman Sachs, apparently), Scotland’s other banks should follow – including the wee Airdrie Savings Bank – but Scotland’s other financial operators are also to be counted. We have hedge funds and investment managers including a new one launched in Glasgow (Crinan Capital) last month but also some longer established ones like Aberdeen Asset Management, Martin Currie, and Dundee’s own Alliance Trust – there’s about £650 billion investment under Scotland’s managers, £726 billion in pension funds management, and £685 billion in asset servicing.

We also have fairly serious players in the financial sector and it amounts to getting on for a couple of thousand companies (including the new ones coming recently) employing about 100,000 people. Scottish Financial Enterprise estimated that the GVA of Scotland’s financial sector amounted to some £7billion in 2008. The Investment Management Association reckons that 13% of all of the UK’s funds are managed in Scotland.

I haven’t used GVA figures much here – there are arguments both ways on their use and some of the figures would help bolster my case; ONS figures, for example, suggest that Scotland has 8.4% of the UK population but 8.5% of the economically active population and 8.2% of GVA. GVA should be taken with a touch of caution at this level, though, as pointed out by ONS. Because of the methods of gathering information the confidence interval increases and ONS uses a rolling mean to smooth the effects. An interesting point about GVA made by ONS, though, is that it is measured where the wages are paid rather than where you live – as would be the ideal – meaning that London is overblown as a result of commuting, giving the wonderful irony that, according to the Office of National Statistics’ measurement of Gross Value Added, Scotland’s MPs contribute to the economic well-being of London and not of Scotland.

So how big is Scotland’s economy? Well, ONS gives our GVA per head (excluding oil) as being 97.9% of the UK’s (GVA, as noted, is skewed by much being reported in London when the work is done elsewhere) and has the North East of Scotland as the third wealthiest region in the UK (statistics due for update in December). Turnover of private Scottish enterprises (excluding the financial sector and North Sea Oil – so a fairly large chunk) was £249.5 billion in 2009 – up from £216.7bn in 2007 and £164.6bn in 2000.

The public sector is, to an extent, carried on the back of the private sector. There are arguments about whether Government spending crowds out private investment and therefore restricts economic performance and it is doubtful whether any theory will ever play out enough to balance itself up. It’s clear, however, that public sector employment in Scotland is nowhere near the levels sometimes claimed. The public sector employed 590,850 people in March 2009 and there were 24,980 employed in public corporations or nationalised bodies out of 2,586,370 – a little under 24%. Surprisingly, NHS and Social Work staff amount to 244,070; just under 40% of the total public sector employees, 9.4% of all working people in Scotland, or one in every 20 of our population. That’s a figure that I hope to have a look at in closer detail when I get some time.
I posited that an economy that was healthy enough to support an independent Scotland would have to have a wide base, flexibility, strength in depth, the space to grow, and resilience. I’ve sketched the beginning of the debate here – not completed the case by any manner of means – and I think we’re heading in the right direction, more can be found on Scotland Performs. Scotland’s economy isn’t homogenous, it has enough variety to allow it to absorb some impacts and recover, and it has resilience as we’ve seen. It has ingenuity and invention as well and it has intelligent operators who will protect their businesses (like the fishing fleet which has developed better fishing techniques to allow stocks to recover). Scotland’s people are engaged with the economy but there is still room to grow, there are opportunities and Scots are taking them. Scotland’s economy, it seems to me, isn’t a land-mass of industry so much as an archipelago of endeavour and the spaces between the islands might be as important as the islands themselves – there’s room for manoeuvre and there’s room for growth. There are weaknesses, certainly, as I’m sure there are in every economy, but there are great strengths as well. We may have far fewer of the employers of yesteryear who each employed thousands of workers but we have many, many more that are small enterprises, the dreams of individual people and the drive to make a living by their own hand. The size of the turnover of the Scottish economy is more than I expected it to be when I first started looking, and the fact that our GVA per head is approaching the UK average in spite of the skewing of London gives me great confidence in our ability to perform and to perform well economically. We punch above our weight in financial services and we punch above our weight in education, we have a robust and resilient economy.

Taken as a whole, I think it demonstrates that Scotland has an economy which can see us into independence and serve us well there. It won’t stay the same, it will change, but it should stay strong unless government makes a mess of it. It won’t improve markedly on day one of independence but a Scottish Government dedicated to improving Scotland (and the previous Executives, to some extent) has shown that it can be improved, even under the restricted circumstances of devolution and a government of whatever hue that gets its hands on the levers of economic management with Scotland’s best interests at heart will be a government that can set Scotland on a course for sustained economic improvement. It won’t be fast but it can be done.

We may carry deficits some years – as the UK does, and most other nations do – but we can carry surpluses some years, too. We may institute an oil and renewables fund to take long-term advantage of our natural resources. We may do a lot of things, but I think it’s clear that we actually do have the scope, the economic strength, the resilience, and the wit to be able to do these things for our own benefits. It’s not a fiscal argument, it’s about the economy, sensible, and we should have the courage to acknowledge that we’re as good as anyone else.

Alex Porter argued that the proper answer to the question “will an independent Scotland have a viable economy?” was “Who cares? What choice do we have?” I have a great temptation to agree with him, to agree that the UK is bust and broken and beyond repair, but I’ve also got a wee message of hope.

Not only will an independent Scotland have a viable economy, we’ve got it already, it’s functioning not too badly, it may be misfiring here and there from time to time but a wee tune-up and a decent driver and it can quite easily be purring its way along the highways and byways of the global economy, steering to catch Scotland’s best interests as it sees them. Spread good cheer, we’ve got a good economy.

Saturday 18 September 2010

The economic case - the case against GERS

OK, let’s take a wee glance under the skirts of the economic case before we put it back in its bath chair with a wee tartan rug over its knees and send it out for a sleep in the sunshine out in the garden.

It has to start, really, with that old warhorse GERS. Not the Ibrox team, I wouldn’t want to intrude, but the report known as Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland. I think Ian Lang must still be chuckling about his cunning plan, conceived in 1992 while he was Scottish Secretary. Not only did the numbers, maladjusted as they were before the recent review, create confusion, it fed the conceit that Scotland might not be paying its way in the world. It was a political exercise in undermining, as he wrote to his Prime Minister and Chancellor;

"The booklet I have had prepared and printed, setting out the details of the Government’s expenditure and revenue in Scotland, I judge that it is just what is needed at present in our campaign to maintain our initiative and undermine the other parties."

His greatest triumph, though, might be said to be that nationalist politicians ended up being sucked into the maelstrom of argument over what is, essentially, a partial cashflow statement. GERS is the spindoctor that has become the story, it’s a statistical report that has become a unionist shibboleth and a nationalist tripwire, and it means nothing.

The political points of GERS had to be addressed and its insufficiencies pointed out, the disingenuity of basing a political economics argument on a tally sheet which contains estimates and best-fits challenged, but we’ve ended with the daft position where we’re arguing about which years Scotland was in surplus and by how much rather than on how we make Scotland a better country. For surplus to have been the position in as many years as it has is nigh on miraculous, it is not the normal position for a country to have. If I may quote Professor Gavin McCrone in his 1974 paper on Scotland’s oil:
“In the first place it is not necessary to balance the budget. To finance loans and various items of capital investment, particularly those which yield a return by borrowing is quite reasonable; other items too may be covered by borrowing from time to time particularly if an expansionary budget is necessary to generate a higher level of economic activity in the economy. For these various reasons the United Kingdom budget normally involves a net borrowing requirement and whilst this will normally be fairly small this is not always so; in the present year, for example, the borrowing requirement reached the record figure of £4,000m.”
Governments borrow, nations run deficits. The UK Treasury’s website has a few fascinating items on it including the history of the national debt.
The origins of public debt
6. Historically when the state had budgetary deficits, particularly those arising from wars, it funded them from taxation.
The financing needed for the War of the League of Augsburg led to the creation of the Bank of England in 1694 and the first types of state public financing debt in England.
7. The early 1700s saw the emergence of banking and financial markets. The ability to raise money by creating debt through the issue of bills and bonds heralded the beginning of the National Debt. This rose from £12m in 1700 to £850m by the end of the NapolĂ©onic Wars in 1815. The two world wars of the twentieth century caused debt levels to rise, from £650m in 1914 to £7.4bn by 1919 and from £7.1bn in 1939 to £24.7bn in 1946.
8. The period of relatively high inflation in the 1970s and 1980s saw debt rise from £33.1bn in 1970 to £197.4bn in 1988. Debt measures are usually presented as a percentage of GDP since comparisons over time need to allow for effects such as inflation. Dividing by GDP is the conventional way of doing this.
As an aside, one of the interesting things about this, for me, is the fact that the UK national debt started accruing a few years before the UK came into being and it would appear that there is a bit of historical revisionism going on about the events that surrounded 1707. We are often told that the Darien scheme had brought Scotland’s finances to their knees and we were saved by integration with a larger and richer neighbour. It appears, however, that England had just become the first nation ever to get into debt. Interesting but little more than that in discussing Scotland’s future.

What is far more pertinent to the case against GERS is the attitude of the UK Government to managing the debt. The Public Sector Net Debt is £816.2 billion and there is some publically stated intention on the part of the current Conservative Chancellor to reduce that but supporting documentation for the June 2010 budget points to a slightly different set of priorities:
The Government aims to finance its net cash requirement plus maturing debt and any financing required for additional net foreign currency reserves through the issuance of debt.
In other words, the Government intends to borrow to cover its cash requirements this year and next year and the year after – and to borrow in order to pay off the bonds that are maturing; borrowing money to cover the costs of the money already borrowed. I haven’t looked to see when the UK last ran a surplus but I would imagine that it would take some looking. A little perspective is a wonderful thing – the UK still services the debt from the Napoleonic wars rather than paying it off, reasoning that servicing it is cheaper and therefore better value for the public purse. Not only do governments borrow money, they keep on going, relying on inflation to take the long-term costs down and make it affordable.

This may not be a bad thing – sovereign bonds are purchased by organisations like pension funds because the reliability and the guaranteed, if low, return serve their purposes well. Krugman and others have argued that we should actually be borrowing more in order to stimulate the economy and soothe the nerves of fund managers – the theory goes
High levels of borrowing increase demand and are therefore generally held to stimulate economic activity; low levels of borrowing (or, on occasion, actual repayment of debt) decrease demand, and so are generally thought to depress economic activity.
Whether Scotland has the economic ability to thrive after independence has very little to do with the figures that are in the GERS report and an awful lot more to do with what Scotland can do to earn a crust in the world. There is a political ping-pong that goes back and forth with equally sterile arguments on each side – Scotland’s ability to pay her own way is questioned followed by an accusation of mismanagement of our economy from London, there’s a union dividend or we pay all the bills. I don’t subscribe to the idea that malevolent politicians sitting beside the Thames design policies to harm Scotland. I do, however, reason that their calculations have to be about what’s best for the overall UK economy and that is skewed incredibly towards London and the South-East of England, even to the detriment of large areas of England. Scotland suffers as an unintended consequence of decisions made in the best interests of the UK economy.

Even if we had the figures to hand – the actual corporate and personal taxation take from Scotland, the actual spend in Scotland, the oil revenues, the backlog of capital works, the share of duties and so on – it would mean little in terms of the independence debate. A change of policy on the part of an independent government would move the numbers and a range of policy alterations will create a new landscape. Additionally, forces will come to bear which change those figures over which governments have little control, as we have seen recently. The real question to answer is ‘How can we make our country more robust to withstand the buffeting of bad weather, flexible enough to accommodate different strands of enterprise, and agile enough to take advantage of opportunities?’ The independence question in there is ‘can we do it?’ That’s what we should be looking at in the economic debate, how do we make this country resilient in the face of challenges, forward-looking in opportunity harvesting and capable of sustaining and improving her people’s standard of living?

It’s only partially a numbers exercise, the current figures only hint at what tomorrow may bring – it’s more an exercise in imaging a new landscape and about how to deliver it. That journey should take us away from the barren lands of GERS and into the more fertile lands of positive human interaction. The numbers may be fascinating and deliver us a cracking good argument from time to time but we’d best take a look at what we could win should we dare to try. That’s a field to poke my nose into next.

Monday 6 September 2010

A Case for Independence

I want to state a case for independence to start it here and develop it over time. I tire of the economic argument, of the statistical ping-pong, of the sterile subsidy/surplus, poverty/plenty, barren/bountiful debate. It shrinks the debate on Scotland’s future to little more than a car boot sale haggling session; it belittles our politics and narrows our politicians. A country is more than a balance sheet, a nation more than a cash account, a people more than a bank statement. There are wealthy nations and there are poor nations and each of them goes about its business and its international interactions seeking its best advantage. Most of them run annual deficits and carry large debts. Seldom does any nation decide that its wealth or its poverty requires it to be subsumed by another and seldom does any nation decide that its wealth or its poverty requires it to secede from such a union; nations are more than the sum of their sovereign funds, you cannot place the value of a community in a set of accounts any more than you can weigh identity or measure the dimensions of belonging. The ‘economics’ debate brings to mind Bierce’s definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
We know that Scotland is a wealthy country, one of the richest, and we know that we’ll have a moral obligation to hold out the hand of friendship and assistance to nations which need it, wherever they are – it’s an obligation and an opportunity we should welcome. Our wealth is not in and of itself an argument for independence, though, any more than its absence would be a case for the continuation of the UK. Our common future deserves more careful consideration than that and should be rooted in a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Scot. Or, to quote Walter Scott:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d , and unsung.
It is that unquenchable affection for a people, a land, a place, a belonging that marks a people’s link to their country, perhaps even more so in stateless nations like Scotland. It is the drive that comes from that which leads many to the nationalist cause and it is the yearning to belong to that land and the people of the land that drives civic nationalism; an inclusive and welcoming thinking. It does not easily lend itself to outlining a case fro independence, however, and Scotland needs that case to be laid out.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, first president of Pakistan and its chief architect, laid out a case for nationhood. He appears to have used the same formulation of words on several different occasions and used them to, amongst other things, explain why Pakistan should be created. It’s a clear and cogent phraseology:
We are a nation with our own distinctive culture and civilization, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of values and proportion, legal laws and moral codes, customs and calendar, history and traditions, aptitudes and ambitions, in short, we have our own distinctive outlook on life and of life. By all canons of international law we are a nation.
It’s approaching 70 years since Jinnah laid out this vision of the distinctiveness of his nation but the clarity of his argument means that it applies just as much to Scotland today; we have our own distinct and distinctive culture, evolving and ever-changing it is true, and welcoming of additions from new members of our society to create what William McIlvanney happily described as “our mongrel nation”; a distinctive civilisation – an understanding of civic society which differs in scope and direction from our English neighbours and, to a great extent, from our other European neighbours, falling closer to Scandinavian mores but still distinctly Scottish; our own languages, Gaelic, Lallans, Doric, and Scots English spring easily to mind; our literature and art have proud traditions which resonate Scottishness but stand easily and well as part of the international movements; our architecture has a history rooted in Scotland and touching European styles; our names are distinct although our nomenclature might not be quite so clear-cut an issue; our sense of values and proportions seem markedly different from those of our neighbours; our laws and legal systems are our own; our customs and calendar are marked by uniquely Scottish events (I imagine that this isn’t what Jinnah meant by calendar but it still stands); our history and traditions are steeped in the mythology of Scotland. In short, we easily fit Jinnah’s definition of a nation. But it seems not enough.

Ernest Renan, 19th century French theorist, had another take on nationhood, one which I can cleave to readily:
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form. Man, Gentlemen, does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice, and devotion. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are.

A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation's existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual's existence is a perpetual affirmation of life. That, I know full well, is less metaphysical than divine right and less brutal than so called historical right.
That accepted continuum argument would seem to hold water well; the social capital, the bonds that hold Scotland as a nation, only exists with the consent of the people. The folk memories and the common aspiration of the people of Scotland are what makes Scotland, the zeitgeist of modern Scotland holds Scotland of the past and Scotland of the future in its hands. The commonality of those who belong to Scotland now is what Scotland is and their joint aspiration will be what determines her future. Where you came from doesn’t matter half as much as where you want to go.

It’s been said by some that a working class Scot has more in common with the working classes in other nations than with other Scots who aren’t ‘working class’ and that there’s a ‘Social Union’ of shared values and mutual cultural interests which binds all on these islands together and which will survive Scots independence. There is little, if anything, to support either of these affectations, they appear as confections created to bolster political positions. I have cousins who are English, born on the Albion side of the border and have lived there ever since, proud of where they come from and proud, too, of their nation. They’re my family and always will be – even during World Cups – but I have more in common with those who have chosen Scotland for their home.

I think it was Oliver Brown who said that there are two types of Scot, those lucky enough to be born here and those intelligent enough to move here, and that seems to fit what can be seen in the towns and cities of Scotland day and daily. Those who have chosen to make this country their home sit easily in the values that Scotland shares, the investment they make in this nation shows the commitment they have whether they have just stepped across the border from England or flown in from Poland or Pakistan or India or Africa or, indeed, anywhere else in the world. Their values chime with those we recognise most happily in ourselves and that we, in our commonality, appear to share; perhaps not universally but in clear majority terms. They have a shared existence, a shared belief, a desire to share in the ‘large-scale solidarity’ that is Scotland and their lives are led to the same rhythm as ours. I find a greater affinity with someone who has chosen to come here than with those who have always had their allegiance tagged to another nation.

What, then, of those who set forth from Scotland and settle elsewhere? They appear to be of at least two types – those whose romantic hearts have remained behind and those whose eyes are set on other lands and ne’er backerties do they cast. There is ample evidence that Scots have held fast to their home nation even when living on the other side of the globe (read Kenny MacAskill’s book Wherever the Saltire Flies for detail) and there is an equal amount of evidence that there were Scots who never thought a second time about shaking the dust of Scotland from their shoes (although we still like to claim them as our own when it suits us). Those who never look back seem to be on a par with those who have never looked here, their links with Scotland are broken, it has become just another country to them, quite possibly as foreign a country as the past can make it. Scots who have moved abroad but carry a piece of Scotland with them have never truly left but their connection is simply not as strong as the connection between Scotland and someone born elsewhere who has chosen to live here – they are Scots just as much as any of us are Scots, it doesn’t matter whether you can trace your Scottish roots back to an ancestor who sat in McAlpin’s court or your Scottish roots began at the airport last week if you’ve made the commitment to live in Scotland you’re a Scot if you choose to be one.

I don’t pretend that Scotland is free from racism nor would I contend that xenophobic sentiment is a minor issue here. I dislike the smugness on this issue that Scots, including myself, so often display as if we were better people than those elsewhere but we have a civic and collective attitude which encourages assimilation into our nation – some of the most passionate Scots I have met have been the children and grandchildren of immigrants, building a belonging here while still holding a candle for their ancestral homeland. Internationalism burns clearly where people can feel a part of a new nation as well as retaining their own histories. I would like to think that we can aspire to the same level of acceptance of others that Ataturk displayed while speaking to the mothers of ANZAC soldiers who died at Gallipoli:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives...
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore, rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side,
Here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries...
Wipe away your tears.
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land, they have
Become our sons as well.
His constant refrain was that nations are people in the land and that the strength of nations depends upon the strength of its people; in a speech in Ankara in 1920 he said:
Today, nations recognize only one sovereignty: sovereignty of the people. Looking at the details of an administration we would see that all begins in a village, a community, in other words with persons. People can be led by anyone in the wrong or right direction if they are not educated. For his/her salvation every person must take his/her future in his/her own hands. An institution built from bottom to top, from the foundation to the roof will certainly be strong.
Ghandi expressed similar sentiments:
We have long been accustomed to think that power comes only through legislative assemblies. I have regarded this belief as a grave error brought about by inertia or hypnotism. A superficial study of the British history has made us think that all power percolates to the people from parliaments. The truth is that power resides in the people and it is entrusted for the time being to those whom they may choose as their representatives. The parliaments have no power or even existence independently of the people.
The continuing theme is that it is the people who are important, not the institutions, that the cohesiveness of a people indicates both nationhood and the strength of the nation. There is no social union crossing national boundaries that can be as strong as the union of people within those boundaries. I think the concept of the social union was first touted in Jim Sillars’ book The Case for Optimism where he noted the parallel concerns of FBU members in London and Glasgow. I would speculate that firefighters’ professional concerns, though, retain a similarity across the globe as has been so often demonstrated with the efforts firefighters here will put in to ensure that their colleagues in other countries have equipment which will help ensure their safety and let them do their jobs effectively, while their cultural and social concerns diverge markedly – it isn’t a social union that motivates them, it’s a professional bond and similar bonds can be seen in many other professions.

Is this a case for independence? Not of itself; there is no restriction on what the people of a nation can do with their sovereignty – it’s theirs to do with as they will, even to cede control of it to others – and the case for independence is still to be made. It rises from the contention that the interests of Scotland differ from those of the UK, that our pooled sovereignty is not serving our people in the best possible manner – and that is the case we have to argue.

I have heard the case made that “an independent Scotland would not have gone to war in Iraq” and I wonder whether that is thought to be a compelling argument. Leaving aside the fact that we have no way of knowing what an independent Scotland might have done nor how it would have developed and where its best interests would have lain at the time, how is this any more a compelling argument than arguing that an independent Scotland would have a different speed limit or a different benefits system? It hinges on the fall of one decision in one direction or the other and is no more an argument for independence than the assertion that vegetarians and meat eaters disagree is an argument for any such couple to divorce. The dissonance between Scotland and the UK must be greater than this for the case to be made for independence and I’d like to take a stab at establishing the basics of that case first and developing it in greater detail later.

There are shining contrasts between the civic discourse of Scotland and the civic discourse of the UK – interestingly often seen most starkly in those UK politicians who come from here, perhaps a proximity thing, perhaps because they try too hard – and there are equally large contrasts between the reported opinions of Scots and similar opinion polls across the UK, mirrored, it would seem, by the vox populi of ‘letters to the editor’, broadcast phone-ins, those dreadful ‘stop you on the street corner and ask your opinion of asylum seekers’ spots, and all the other trendy and with-it techniques of garnering audience participation to justify broadcasting.

It all suggests that Scotland is a nation with a different social conscience from that of the UK, we are a more collectivist people – an attitude more Scandinavian where our sense of decency reaches out for us and we see a society in balance, a society which holds to yachad, which embraces togetherness, collectivity and togetherness.

We see the political discourse of Scotland being a welcoming of asylum seekers and holding close of refugees – a discourse which is echoed by the neighbourly welcoming those in need through community action groups. Even if there are tensions at times and even violence, the over-arching is a welcome, a social commentary from the roots of Scotland which disparages the actions of the UKBA and rails against the inhumanity of decisions made in the tribunals. The political discourse in the UK, meanwhile is that of the fortress, of quotas and caps and fast rejection, the contest seems to be who can hang toughest, who can play the card closest to the wire, and who can match the vitriol of the least reasonable newspapers. The civic chatter is muted at best, and the words from the pens and keyboards of the concerned populace appears to be concerned with preserving property and lifestyles rather than offering friendship and humanity.

Where the UK argues for the retention of a nuclear weapons facility in order to play with the big boys on the world stage, Scotland revolts against the inhumanity of them. Where the UK political slant is that we need to be a nuclear power in order to retain our permanent member position in the UN Security Council, Scotland’s political viewpoint is, generally, more geared towards working productively with a larger number of other nations for the greater good, and taking our turn at doing the work in the Security Council when it comes round – more a cooperation in world affairs than the desire to rule them that seems to be the UK position – a position which Dean Acheson perhaps measured accurately. Internationalism rather than imperialism, perhaps?

Scotland favours offering opportunities for self-advancement and entrepreneurship rather than the glorification of wealth; the encouragement of employment opportunities and the helping hand back into work rather than the provision of advice about mounting bicycles and heading off in search of the promised land; and the protection of those who cannot work rather than their vilification as scroungers.

Public ownership of the public sector and the infrastructure of the state is regarded as a good thing in Scotland, far less so across the UK, and the argument that the public sector drags down the private sector is contested vigorously here but appears to be accepted wisdom across the UK – even when the private sector turned to the public sector recently and begged for investment in massive public sector procurement projects to help the private sector. ‘Project Privatise UK’ which has appeared in many guises over the years has been met with increasing opposition in Scotland – even to the point of turning it back (the SNP Government, obviously, but don’t forget that the last administration did their bit with things like the Skye Bridge). While there continue to be moves afoot in the UK to toll roads Scotland has removed tolls from bridges because they are part of the roads network (again, the SNP Government with panache but the previous mob also got into the act with the Erskine Bridge).

Whisper it, but there’s a tendency in Scotland to favour progressive taxation while the UK seems set on moving towards flat taxes, having only come towards progressive tax as a necessity; and a willingness in Scotland to use the business tax system to encourage smaller businesses to thrive rather than simply create conditions for yet more massive profits for those already making fortunes.

It’s not an exhaustive list by any manner of means but it is indicative of some of the big issues. It can be expanded as we go – or, indeed, challenged. It serves, I think, to indicate that Scotland thinks and feels differently about big issues in society, that we pull towards a different path, that we would be more comfortable, more stable, feel more in solidarity if we went our own way.

The UK politicians aren’t necessarily wrong to follow the paths they are taking and it may be that the policies they have chosen to pursue are the right policies for some parts of the UK. They may have positioned the UK just right for its interests but they do not appear to be Scotland’s interests.

The wellbeing of a nation, of a people, is about much more than economics, it’s about how a nation walks together, about how we rub along, agree and debate and decide the way forward. I can’t understand why, as one of my SNP colleagues put it, some politicians don’t appear to want Scotland to have an economy fit for independence even before it happens, but I don’t think that it’s the most important point in the debate. Poets contribute as much as economists, engineers as much as programmers, it’s a collective effort that drives a country forward and it seems that the impetus to drive Scotland forward is missing from the UK agenda – not out of conspiracy or evil intent but merely because Scotland’s interests do not align with those of the UK.

Scotland is pulling in a different direction, our interests lie other than alongside those of the UK, we have different attitudes, different collective opinions, a different solidarity. It isn’t just that we might have come to a different conclusion in taking this decision or that decision, it’s that we approach the decisions differently.

We are a nation with all the attributes of a nation and all of the gatherings of a nation, a nation whose sovereignty is currently commanded to take pathways which don’t sit easily with us, with our beliefs or our collective conscience.

That is the case for our independence, that is why we should reclaim our statehood, that is why Scotland should rejoin the family of nations - Scotland is a different nation and should be seen as such.

Friday 3 September 2010

Councillor Dawe - just not worthy

There was a wee story in Edinburgh's Evening News recently. The gist is that Edinburgh Council paid out £6,000 to a company involved in the Gathering and no-one had told Council Leader Jenny Dawe who had told other councillors that no money had been paid, she instituted some kind of inquiry to get to the root of it all and that report has indicated a series of events which resulted in the money being paid out and it was, of course, all the fault of a senior council officer.

At first I regarded this as being a bit of a waste of public money and just a bit snide on the part of Cllr Dawe, seeking to shuck off responsibility but thinking about it now, I'm thinking that it's indicative of a deeper malaise, leading the council carries a responsibility similar to the leader of any other organisation - your desk is where the buck stops whether you ordered the action or not. Tony Hayward never ordered the rig explosion or the oil slick but he took the rap; Dugdale resigned in spite of not being responsible for the Crichel Down Affair; Carrington resigned because the FCO had failed over the Falklands in spite of not being personally responsible; and if memory serves there was even a Minister in Blair's Government who resigned over exam marking even though she was not personally responsible. Being at the top of the tree means you have to be prepared to accept responsibility for the organisation you lead. Slippy shoulders when it comes to responsibility (aye, and the blame) are not acceptable.

I laughed at the irony a while back when I saw a leaflet from an Edinburgh SNP councillor which stated that the Lib Dems now only stand for hypocrisy; now I wonder whether he was being too kind. When you're in a position of privilege and responsibility like the leader of the council in Scotland's capital city you have a duty to strive always to be worthy of the office, you should always be asking whether when all is said and done you will have said more than you've done or done more than you've said. Cllr Dawe doesn't match that specification, she is just not worthy.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Labour and alcohol

Most interested was I in the 'independent' commission on alcohol that Labour set up. It had six members: Sam Galbraith, Labour party member and former Labour Minister; Stephen Doran, Labour party member and Glasgow Labour councillor; Brian Fearon, Labour party member, former Labour councillor and Labour's candidate in Ochil in 2007; Sally Brown (chair), former Labour party member and friend and neighbour of Labour MSP and former Labour Minister Richard Simpson; Graeme Pearson, former policeman and now Labour's adviser on crime (providing the skeleton for Richard Baker's sterling work); and Jeremy Blood who spent 21 years working for Scottish & Newcastle and is now a director of Mitchell's & Butler's. Impartiality - ye canna whack it!

Anyway, this commission, fascinatingly, came up with proposals that are already Labour party policy - remarkable the prescience that Labour politicians have - and scorned Minimum Unit Pricing (the policy of the SNP Government). This commission argued that "MUP is not in place anywhere in world and the evidence presented for its effectiveness relies on estimates of impact" just before it refers to the Canadian Social Reference Pricing which it suggests differs markedly from MUR. Perhaps they should have done the tiniest bit of research, something like reading the submission from the Brewers Association of Canada to the Alcohol Bill which describes SRP and shows it to be the same as MUP. In addition, Russia introduced minimum pricing on vodka earlier this year to curb consumption and has already had minimum pricing for other spirits for a couple of years, Moldova introduced it on strong alcohol products, Ukraine and China both have minimum pricing (Ukraine's politicians were arguing about how much it should rise by in April last year), and Australia was considering it at the beginning of last year (just me and my research assistant Mr Google finding MUP in action)

If you want something more stunning than that, though, look at the recommendations - this commission rejects the idea of Scotland bringing in a minimum price for alcohol based on the strength of the product and suggests, instead, that the Scottish Government asks London to introduce a floor price below which alcohol may not be sold and harmonise prices so that the cost of the drink will be based on the strength of the product. So that would be an argument that we shouldn't do it but should ask London to - the argument being that you shouldn't have a different system in Scotland. The irony of Labour being last to understand devolution is almost painful. Also interesting in that section, though, is that Labour's minimum price is based on adding together the cost of production, duty and VAT but there is an aside that "The Commission is unconvinced by those who argue that it is not possible to arrive at a notional basic cost of production." This is the only time in the report that it is mentioned that someone has suggested that it might be impossible to isolate notional basic costs (for instance, if one site is producing 20 different products on 7 different lines, how do you allocate production costs to each unit of each product?)

Labour once again ignoring the duty of responsible politicians and, instead, messing around looking for a tiny political pointscoring opportunity - a party that really can't be trusted. It's time to properly address Scotland's unhealthy relationship with alcohol and Labour just isn't interested.

Let's leave the last word to some international alcohol experts who have written to MSPs encouraging them to support the SNP Government proposals.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Top Trumps - Justice

As I said before, you can buy Top Trumps packs but they've forgotten Holyrood (how could they?). One of the comments on the Top Trumps post on the candidates for First Minister suggested that I should have added "Ability to think on ones feet" as a category - it's one I didn't consider but it would hardly be fair, would it? Salmond seems mildly disappointed if nothing unexpected happens while the Labour front bench looks like it would need to go home for instructions if the newsagent didn't have its favourite brand of chewing gum.
On to Justice though; our contenders are
SNP - Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill MSP
Lab - Shadow CSfJ Richard Baker MSP
Con - Shadow CSfJ John Lamont MSP
LD - Spokesperson on Justice Robert Brown MSP (I had to look that up)
Green - I dunno, I'll let James tell us


Tough on crime

MacAskill takes assets from criminals and recycles them into assets for communities - on his watch Scotland’s police and courts have been pursuing organised crime and getting results . This is, of course, a big change since Labour’s time in power - I think he gets 10 out of 10

Baker talks about ASBOs for teenagers drinking but won’t agree with action to address the drinking and wants to jail daft wee laddies who go out with a knife in their pocket but won’t agree with the action needed to persuade them not to. He never mentions serious crime and has never talked about taking on organised crime. He wants to appear to be tough on crime but doesn’t have what it takes to actually be tough on crime. He gets 0

Lamont is new to the job, having taken over after Bill Aitken decided to sing the closing aria on his political career so he doesn’t have much of a record to examine. He does seem to have slotted straight into the strange twilight world of the Scottish Conservatives Justice theory, though, (a pity that he doesn’t take a leaf out of the book of Ken Clarke who takes somewhere approaching sense on Justice issues) and is obsessing on a few matters rather than offering solutions. He’s for short prison sentences and agrees with Labour on jailing wee laddies – wants to appear tough on crime but doesn’t know how. He gets 0

Brown is strange, it’s never very clear where he stands on anything (enough with the ‘typical Lib Dem’ comments, now), he’s unusually indirect for a Geordie. He doesn’t actually say much about the operation of the Justice system and hasn’t brought forward any alternative policies. He most certainly hasn’t spoken about how he would like to see us tackle organised crime. He gets 0

Tough on the causes of crime

MacAskill wrote a fair bit on how to address the causes of crime in the books he wrote a few years ago as well as in articles – firstly address the three Ds – drink, drugs and deprivation, lock up the bad guys, treat those needing treatment, and find ways to give society a fair crack of the whip. In Government he’s implemented restorative justice – Cashback for Communities as already mentioned, but also in putting community service workers to work in places where it will be helpful – like clearing snow from pensioners’ paths last winter or putting headstones back up in Edinburgh graveyards or helping restore peatlands in Lanarkshire. He’s set up a review of sentencing, gave the Advocate General free reign on reforming the prosecution of rape, moved to get rid of short sentences, started the process of addressing Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and started to make sure that offenders pay back to the communities they have damaged.

He’s addressing recidivism – removing short sentences is a big part of it, keeping people out of prison as far as possible and trying to make them productive members of society, keeping prison for those who are a danger to society . He hasn’t done everything yet, so only 8 out of 10

Baker has never laid out his thought on paper as far as I can tell and only comments to say “I’m against that” – I can’t recall a single time when he has said that he agrees with something that is begin done. He’s in favour of short sentences – even wanted a mandatory six month sentence in spite of the overwhelming evidence that short sentences encourage reoffending and embed many people in a life of crime. Instead of offering the underprivileged a hand up and out of the hole they’ve landed themselves in, Baker appears to want to just put a lid on the hole and keep them down there. For a devastating indictment of the lack of vision in Labour’s Justice policy, there’s only one place to go. Scores 0

Lamont hasn’t said much (give him time) but he’s got to defend this barking policy he hasn’t scored yet, but he could do worse than learn from Malcolm Rifkind who delivered the Kenneth Younger Memorial Lecture to the Howard League for Penal Reform while he was the Minister in charge of Justice policy in Scotland in 1988 and he said:
There will always be those who commit serious or violent crimes and who pose a threat to society which requires them to be confined for significant periods. Nevertheless there are many good reasons for wishing to ensure that, as a society, we use prisons as sparingly as possible. While the use of imprisonment may be inescapable when dealing with violent offenders and those who commit the most serious crimes, we must question to what extent short sentences of imprisonment and periods of custody for fine default are an appropriate means of dealing with offenders and there is no single answer to that. Prisons are both expensive to build and to run and do not provide the ideal environment in which to teach an offender to live a normal and law-abiding life, to work at a job or to maintain a family. If offenders can remain in the community, under suitable conditions, they should be able to maintain their family ties, opportunities for work or training and they may be better placed to make some reparation for their offence.
Brown is just wishy-washy, nothing much there, but he does oppose short sentences. Give him 3 points (is this like Eurovision?)

Taking decisions while resisting undue influence

MacAskill Showed his mettle here by holding off the US Government in the decision to free Megrahi, making the decision on the basis of the evidence in front of him rather than the political pressures that were on him. 10 by gum!

Baker doesn’t have that fortitude; he even thought that MacAskill should go and beg forgiveness from the US Senate. Nil points

Lamont – nae record to examine, he hasn’t made clear how he would make decisions. He doesn’t even get to speak on Megrahi, Murdo Fraser does that.

Brown gave MacAskill full support in refusing to kowtow to the US Senate, saying that the Scottish Justice Secretary is accountable to the Scottish Parliament and not the US Senate – then he ruined it with a sly dig – 8 out of 10

This would be an awfy boring game of Top Trumps but you get the picture. I think a legal mind might do a better job of analysing these contenders, I know one who frequently opines on Mr Baker, for instance

Mind how you go!

L'esprit de l'escalier

I was having a wee debate about capital punishment last night (not with myself you cheeky rapscallion) and the deterrence effect of punishment on levels of crime (next to nought in my opinion) and I've just thought of the question I should have put to my pro-hangin-an-floggin chum:

Do you need the deterrent of capital punishment to prevent you committing murder?

Must remember in future ...

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Twits of the world unite!

You may remember that cool, hip and groovy chap, Frank McAveety MSP who turned out not to be cool, hip and groovy and had to resign from his convenorship over offensive remarks. He has decided not to be offensive in future and has, instead, decided to employ someone else to do that for him. Step forward Stuart MacLennan, onetime Labour candidate for Moray who resigned in disgrace over, erm, offensive remarks and is now happily ensconced in Mr McAveety's Glasgow office.

I'm sure that they've both learned their lessons and there will be no more behaviour treating people in a derogatory and dismissive fashion. Move along, now, nothing to see here!

Monday 23 August 2010

Art lovers

Here's a thing to go to when you're tired of seeing shows at the Edinburgh Festivals - art that you can contemplate in peace. Barbara Rae is exhibiting some prints in the Dundas Street Gallery (paintings across the road in the Open Eye Gallery).

If you fancy being really nice to me the one I like best is on the left hand wall just opposite the pillar (I've forgotten the name of it). You can see some of her stuff on her website. Mind how you go!

Sunday 22 August 2010

Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Southern Estaitis

If it hadn't been for the chance promotion of wee Danny Alexander to Chief Secretary to the Treasury the UK Government would lack a single Cabinet Secretary who represents a Scottish seat other than the Scottish Secretary. John Major's last cabinet, with fewer Scottish Members to choose from (11 Tory seats under Major, 12 Coalition seats now), had Lang at Trade and Industry and Rifkind as Foreign Secretary (Forsyth was Scottish Secretary).

Interestingly, Brown had only three (including himself) but Blair had four in his last cabinet - each with far more to choose from than Major. Is the quality of unionist MP from Scotland in decline? I suppose it is blindly obvious that Mundell does not have the quality of Rifkind or Forsyth, that Moore is no Jo Grimond and Danny Alexander isn't even Russell Johnston. It's just as clear, I suppose, that Murphy is no Tom Johnston and Douglas Alexander can't hold a candle to Willie Ross, but are they really that much worse than the fodder being served up south of the border - Vince Cable, Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Huhne, Andrew Lansley, Eric Pickles?

It's just as well we can fend for ourselves, isn't it? Mind how you go!