Wednesday 27 March 2013

I have not stopped blogging, but I have moved.  My blog now has a new home which you can find here.  I hope you continue to visit my new home.

Monday 25 February 2013

What is Scottish Labour For?

This post is a belated comment on Johann Lamont’s speech in Edinburgh last September.  I have read and reread her speech and still find it very hard to understand what she is trying to say.  In the hope of some clarification I wrote to our local Labour MSP.  We eventually did meet, but there was no meeting of minds.  The main substance of my critique is that Johann Lamont and the Labour Party as a whole are dishonest and defeatist.  In particular Scottish Labour seems to be content for the Scottish Parliament to rely in perpetuity on a block grant from Westminster, with no questions asked.  Thus it follows that Scottish Labour's vision for Scotland amounts to little more than managing a decline in public services.  Scottish Labour seems to have no willingness to challenge the status quo in order  to maintain and if desired increase public services in Scotland.  To my naive surprise the Labour MSP was in complete agreement with her leader.  In fact she stated that accepting whatever the UK government condescends to give us is a price worth paying to stay in the UK.  A Union dividend indeed!  Below is what I wrote at the time on Johann Lamont's speech.

In her speech Johann Lamont makes some very pertinent observations.  For example when she states: “This is the stark choice that Scotland has to face up to: if we wish to continue some policies as they are then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere.”  She then goes on to correctly in my view state that: “Once we have decided as a country what kind of public services we aspire to, then we must have an honest debate about affordability.
Unfortunately the rest of her speech was to ignore completely the issue of affordability.  For this reason I feel she is being dishonest.  She repeats that there will be less money around.  While this is true for the immediate future, it is not the result of some immutable law of nature.  It is the wholly political and ideological choice of our current nasty government in Westminster.  Yet at no stage in her speech does Ms Lamont challenge this situation.  Her whole premise is based on accepting whatever Westminster decides to allocate to Scotland.  We can argue and debate about who gets what, but we must never challenge the amount we get.  This it seems to me is a most defeatist approach.  So in essence I accuse of Johann Lamont of being both dishonest and defeatist.

In her speech Ms Lamont was quite happy to highlight some of the gross inequalities that demean Scotland.  For example she asks: “What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut?”  In parliament she continued with this line by exposing how much Nicola Sturgeon and her husband earn.  Now, I agree with Johann Lamont on this.  It is wrong and in my view indefensible that we have people earning £100, 000 and more a year while pensioners need care.  But where I fundamentally disagree is that this iniquity can be solved by means testing or restricting universal benefits.  The answer it seems to me is to increase taxes on high earners like Nicola Sturgeon.  But of course Johann Lamont cannot do that because the Scottish Parliament has no real powers over fiscal matters.  And it is her refusal to contemplate any serious debate about this issue that confirms to me that she is dishonest when it comes to talking about affordability.  She is right that we cannot have a mature debate about what kind of public services we aspire to for our country without including affordability.  But we equally cannot have a mature debate about affordability if we do not have the powers over taxation and the economy in general.  
This is not I hasten to add a call for independence, though of course that is one option.  However there is a range of options within the UK for Scotland to be given control over significant areas of taxation to full fiscal autonomy.  But on this Johann Lamont has nary a word to say.  The only tax she mentioned was the Council tax.  Which she apparently wants to increase.  Probably the most regressive and hated tax of all.

Ms Lamont concludes her speech with bit of a rallying call when she claims: “But we can change Scotland now. We have the powers in the Scottish Parliament now, to change radically education, health, public services. What we lack is the will.”  This again is to my mind another example of the basic dishonesty in her whole approach.  Firstly a minor point, there are some radical changes going on in Scotland.  I will mention only one - the Curriculum for Excellence.  Whatever one thinks of this, it is certainly an attempt at radical change.  And one that was initiated under a previous Labour government at Holyrood.  So I find her belittling of what has changed and is changing in Scotland both insulting and surprising.

The more fundamental point of course is that it is manifestly not just the will which is lacking in Scotland.  It is the money.  As she herself admits, there will be less money around.  Yet she makes no suggestion whatsoever as to how we might increase the money available for public services.  Whether it is the UK or Scotland we are talking about very wealthy countries.  To claim that we must content ourselves with whatever Westminster condescends to give us is to my mind both dishonest and defeatist.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Austria and Germany - Better Together?

I have always found it surprising that the Better Together campaign to keep Scotland in the UK, never mentions other small or relatively small countries in Europe.  Well they do sometimes, but usually only to disparage or insult them.  Overwhelmingly the message from the No campaign is that the benefits of being part of a larger and more powerful state are only needed by Scotland.  Better Together is quite a powerful call, but if it is to have any meaning other than a PR slogan, it should be applicable to at least some other countries.  Otherwise it is devoid of any real meaning and is simply a cover for the assertion that Scotland is too wee, too poor to be independent.  The problem for the Unionists is that there are numerous countries in Europe that are much smaller than Scotland, both in terms of size and population - think of Luxembourg, Malta, Slovenia, Estonia to name but a few.  All independent and all now part of the EU as full member states.  Tiny Luxembourg was even one of the original six founding members of the EU.  So smallness is no barrier to independence nor to success.  In fairness to the Better Together campaign they do not claim that Scotland could not survive as a separate country.  Their claim is that there is a better choice for Scotland - namely to be part of the UK.  But this better choice must logically be a better choice for other small countries.

Let us take Austria as our example.  While Austria is a little bigger than Scotland, it is not by much.  The landmass of Austria is 83,855 square km and that of Scotland is 78,387 square km.  The population of Austria is 8.5 million, while Scotland has a population of 5.3 million.  So we have two relatively small countries, one lying to the north of a much larger country with which it has much in common and one lying to the south of a much larger country with which it too has much in common.  So, surely Austria, just like Scotland would be better together with Germany.  Why not?  After all the two countries have a lot of shared history and customs and a common language - German.  Both countries are Federal Republics, so it would be easy peasy for the two to come together.  Germany already has experience of this, when the former DDR became part of the Federal Republic in the 1990s.  We can take the key arguments from the Better Together campaign in relation to Scotland and see if they apply to Austria and Germany.  The following text in italics is taken directly from the Better Together website, with the substitution of Austria for Scotland and Germany for the UK.  In this context Germany would refer to a combined Germany and Austria.  My comments follow in parenthesis.

Prosperity - Times are really tough at home and really turbulent internationally. In the future Austria's prosperity will be strengthened by keeping the German connection. In these tough and turbulent times, the size, strength and stability of the German economy is a huge advantage for Austria's businesses. Austria's largest market is Germany.  Austrian businesses are increasingly having to win orders against smart, efficient and productive firms in foreign markets. These competitive challenges will only get tougher in the years ahead. Germany is better placed than a separate Austria to help our businesses find and win new orders across the world.  (Hard to disagree with any of this, after all Germany on its own is much, much bigger, stronger and more stable than the UK's economy.  Becoming part of Germany has to better for Austria.)

Security - In an uncertain world Austria's security will be strengthened as part of Federal Germany.  The German Armed Forces that protect us are the best in the world.  As part of Germany we have real clout in the UN Security Council, NATO, the EU, and we have Embassies around the world. (We are happy to concede that the German Armed Forces may not be the best in the world - the UK can keep that accolade.  The German Armed Forces though are likely to be pretty powerful and reliable.  Equally Germany does not have a permanent seat in the Security Council.  However I am sure Germany has more than enough Embassies around the world and has without a doubt much more clout within the EU than the UK does, or even aspires to.  So, all in all, a good choice for Austria to benefit from all these German strengths.)

Interdependence - As Austrians we believe there's nowhere better, but we understand there's something bigger. By contributing to and benefiting from the multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Federal Republic of Germany of the years ahead, Austria's society and culture will be enriched.  Hundreds of thousands of Austrians and Germans have made their homes in each other's nation. Half of us have German neighbours.  Hundreds of thousands of Austrians were born in Germany. This interdependence - the coming together of family, friends, ideas, institutions and identities - is a strength not a weakness, and is an ideal worth celebrating. The truth is we're better together.  (While many Austrians and Germans will have made their homes in each other's nation, it is unlikely to be as many as in the UK.  However I am not sure that there is meant to be some threshold here.  Even if only a few thousands have exchanged homes, surely that is still a good thing.  And it is hard to argue that Austria's society and culture would not be enriched by being part of something bigger.)

All in all is hard to argue against this scenario and the overall claim that, A strong Austrian Parliament within the Federal Republic of Germany gives us the best of both world: real decision making power here in Austria, as well as a key role in a strong an secure Germany.

So why does no-one, absolutely no-one either here in the Better Together campaign, nor in Austria, nor in Germany make this claim?  It sounds good after all.  But, other than in the minds of Unionists in Scotland it is an argument which is simply risible in the rest of the world.  I am quite sure that Austrians are well aware that there is something bigger than their beloved Austria.  It is almost certainly the EU.  Why would Austrians only want to come together with friends and  family from Germany or any other one country?  Many Austrians will have family, friends and working colleagues from many countries - Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, to name but a few.  Why on earth would they want to limit themselves to links with Germany?

Exactly the same of course applies here in Scotland.  Most of us are happy to celebrate the coming together in Scotland of people from all over the world - Poland, Italy, India, Pakistan, Republic of Ireland and England.  Just why oh why do the Better Together people want us to elevate the English above the others?  For when it comes down to it, the Better Together campaign is just a rather parochial British nationalism.  Or, given the latest claims by the UK government, should that be Greater English nationalism?

Thursday 14 February 2013

A 'Legal Opinion' is still just an 'opinion'

The recent publication by the UK government of the advice it received on "the status of Scotland and the rUK in international law after Scottish independence" has generated quite a lot of heat and comment.  Part of this heat was around the use of the word 'opinion' to describe the report and the advice contained within it.  Supporters of a Yes vote have frequently argued that this report, however distinguished the authors, is one opinion among many.  On the other hand most Unionists have been adamant that this is not just any opinion but an authoritative and  commanding piece of work.  One Unionist commentator on a blog even went so far as to say this was not an 'opinion', but a 'legal opinion'.  One almost felt this should have been followed by a 'so there!'  It is quite touching this faith in the addition of the word legal to opinion, as though this one word turns the advice into something else.  To my mind it seems rather to suggest that many Unionists have so lost the plot and the argument that they are reduced to crying slogans in the hope that debate can be ended.  We now have conclusive 'legal' advice, so why don't you unruly Independentistas just go away and shut up.  This seems to be their message.

It is all rather strange, for the advice from Professors James Crawford and Alan Boyle is when all is said and done, an opinion.  You don't need to take my, non legal opinion on the matter.  The good professors state it themselves.  Just read the cover page of their advice.  It begins with the word Opinion.  Now as professors with a legal training and wide experience, their opinion is likely to carry more weight than mine, but nevertheless it remains an opinion.  The fact that their opinion was commissioned by the UK government does not in itself confer any added validity to their advice.  On the contrary, at least according to Ian Davidson, Labour MP, this more or less confirms it as unreliable.  For Ian Davidson, MP is on record as stating, "if you hire a lawyer to fight a case for you he will fight that case, that’s the point of paying lawyers."  Now of course Ian Davidson was trying to undermine the opinion of someone in favour of independence, but his argument presumably still stands.  So unless the two Professors did their work for nothing, we can dismiss it as worthless.  Not an argument, I hasten to add, with which I concur.  However it does show the lengths to which some Unionists are prepared to go to denigrate their opponents.  The key point is that there are other opinions on the 'status of Scotland the rUK in international law after Scottish independence'.  And some of these opinions, by distinguished lawyers, have been given unsolicited and for no fee.  So they at least are untainted by any whiff of compromise for filthy lucre.

As regards the substance of the advice from the two professors, it is fascinating that at bottom they offer nothing conclusive.  While they outline a number of legal considerations that may affect the outcome, they state in paragraph one of their executive summary that, " In practice, its (Scotland's) status in international law and that of the remainder of the UK (rUK) would depend on what arrangements the two governments made between themselves before and after the referendum, and on whether other states accepted their positions on such matters as continuity and succession."  In paragraph seven of this executive summary they go on to state that, "In any event, Scotland’s position within the EU is likely to be shaped more by any agreements between the parties than by pre-existing principles of EU law."  So on the substantive matter under review, namely 'the status of Scotland the rUK in international law after Scottish independence' they agree that the main determinants of this status will be the result of negotiations and agreements between the two governments rather than legal precedents.  Wow, I hope the UK government think their, or rather our money was well spent.

It is also quite amazing that this conclusion is very much in line with what the Scottish government has been claiming for a number of years now.  Indeed when questioned on BBC radio, Jame Crawford made it clear that even if his opinion was to prove correct - that is Scotland is treated as a new state - it would not be a big issue and that the 18 month timetable suggested by the Scottish government for concluding the negotiations for independence, including Scotland's continuing membership of the EU was realistic.  Maybe the UK government should offer more shillings when they next ask for advice.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Negotiating Scottish Independence - A Lost Cause?

A  recent post in the Scottish Review raises the question of "whether Scotland has the human resources and institutional capacity to negotiate a successful independence settlement if the referendum delivers a ‘Yes’ vote.” The whole article can be read here.  The author, James Aitken, a former Whitehall civil servant, thinks the answer to the question is no.  Indeed, given the title of his article - Sleepers in St Andrew’s House?  They may already be embedded - it is clear that James Aitken is firmly of the view that Westminster will take a stridently hostile approach to any post referendum negotiations.  The UK government will play hardball and the small, inexperienced Scottish team will be steamrollered into accepting a poor settlement.  Aitken’s pessimistic conclusion is that, “it is hard not to conclude that, in its present state, Scotland does not possess the capacity to negotiate an independence settlement which would maximise the benefit to the people of Scotland.”

Aitken’s  article is a very useful contribution to the independence debate as it focuses on the crucial aspect of the post referendum negotiations.  He helpfully outlines just how detailed and overlapping these negotiations can be with, “sectoral committees eg defence, economic, energy etc, themselves subdivided into specialised subcommittees on eg the national debt, banking regulations, intellectual property rights etc.”  So having an experienced team able to staff all these committees will be vital for the Scottish government.  But just how valid are James Aitken’s pessimistic conclusions?

His view that the Scottish government would be incapable of negotiating a “successful independence settlement” is based upon two assumptions, both of which are at the very least challengeable.  The first is that the government of the rest of the UK will play hardball in any negotiations.  While they may indicate that now, in the hope of frightening people to vote no, will they do so in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote?  Is it in the long term interests of the rest of the UK to force an unequal settlement on its nearest neighbour?  How would such an overtly hostile approach be viewed by the UK’s current allies?  Is such an approach compatible with the EU’s guiding principles?  Both the Queen and David Cameron have recently celebrated the UK’s friendly and co-operative relationship with the Republic of Ireland - “a firm friend and an equal partner”.  According to James Aitken while this may be the case with the Republic of Ireland, Scotland somehow would be treated differently.  Is he seriously suggesting that Westminster would negotiate on the basis that Scotland was an enemy and a second or third rate country?  Not exactly the way to win friends and influence people.  For James Aitken seems to have ruled out the possibility that Scotland may have some useful cards to play in the negotiations.  For example how secure is Westminster that the rest of the UK would be regarded as the sole successor state and thus in no need to renegotiate any UK treaties and deals?  It might only take one member state of the EU to challenge this assumption for the whole of the rest of the UK’s position in the EU and perhaps in the Security Council to become open for public scrutiny.  Might it not be in the interests of the rest of the UK to reach a quick and mutually acceptable settlement with Scotland in order to avoid any third party challenges?

The second assumption in James Aitken’s case is that the Scottish government will only have at its disposal the current team in St Andrew’s House.  But what about the large number of Scots who currently work for UK departments, for example the Treasury, Defence and the Foreign Office.  Either there are no Scots working for these departments which seems unlikely, or James Aitken is privy to exactly how all of these civil servants will respond to a ‘Yes’ vote.  There must be a fair chance that at least some of them will choose to work for and towards an independent Scotland.  While there may be UK sleepers in St Andrew’s House, might there not equally be some unofficial Scottish sleepers within UK departments?  The prospect of helping to secure a beneficial independence settlement may be very inspiring for at some Scottish civil servants.  Not to forget that once independent there will be lots of promotional opportunities within an expanded civil service in Scotland.  Actively opposing this outcome is not the best way of advancing your career prospects.

A final point, James Aitken mentions Michael Moore by name in his article as the author of the playing hardball claim.  He omits to consider what the likes of Michael Moore will do in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote.  If he wished to continue his career at Westminster he would have to resign his current seat and hope to get selected for a constituency in England.  Which may be difficult if Scotland is about to become independent.  On the other hand if he resigns from the UK government and announces that, respecting the democratic will of the Scottish people, he wishes to become part of the Scottish negotiating team, then he achieves two positive outcomes.  Firstly he strengthens the Scottish negotiating team with his intimate, inside knowledge of how Westminster will approach the negotiations.  Secondly and happily for him, he greatly strengthens his chances of getting elected to the Scottish parliament.  As a bonus, given our PR system for elections, he might even be in line to become a Minister in the first government of an independent Scotland.   

Monday 4 February 2013

Independence Negotiations - The Czech and Slovak Experience

The UK Electoral Commission has recently called for both the Scottish and UK governments to provide clarity about what will happen after the referendum, whatever the result and called for both governments to agree a joint position.   This post only looks at some of the options for providing clarity in the light of a ‘Yes’ vote.  The vote on independence will be a momentous one, and a first for all of us in Scotland.  However we will not be the first country to go through this process.  Dozens of countries in Europe have become independent in the past twenty years or so.  The case most relevant for Scotland is that of the independence of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  This was a peaceful process and is often referred to as  “The Velvet Divorce”.  So what lessons can we learn form the Czech and Slovak experience?  In preparing this post I have made use of a study on The Breakup of Czechoslovakia by Robert Young, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, 1994.  The full study can be found here.

The first thing to note is that when independence did come, it all happened relatively quickly.  As Young points out, “Having accepted that separation would take place, the leaders quickly established a timetable and a basic framework for the event.”   Secondly, Young noted that, “Overall negotiations involved very few essential items.”  This is pretty much what the Electoral Commission wants to happen before the referendum.  Note that this is not pre-negotiations, but simply agreeing a timetable and framework.

In the case of Scotland what might this look like?  As regards a timetable, the Scottish government have already made public their view that negotiations should be complete in time for the next elections to the Scottish Parliament.  These are due to be held in May 2016.  In this case the timetable would be for the negotiations to be completed by, let us say the middle of April 2016.  This allows for a little leeway over any particularly contentious issues.  If the referendum is held in autumn 2014 as everyone expects, this allows around 18 months for the negotiations.  Will the UK government respond to this suggestion?  If there is a ‘Yes’ vote it will be in the interests of the rest of the UK to get the negotiations over with as soon as possible.  I imagine the business and financial sectors will be pushing for a quick resolution to the negotiations.  Uncertainty is bad for business we are repeatedly told.  As will various outside bodies, such as the IMF, the EU and no doubt the USA.  Each for their own particular reasons will not want the negotiations to drag on.

When it comes to the framework for the negotiations there will be two parts to this.  This could be termed the What and the How.  As regards what the negotiations will be about, according to Young, in Czechoslovakia the big issues were:

  1. the military
  2. succession to international treaties
  3. level of post separation economic integration
  4. currency
  5. citizenship
  6. division of assets and liabilities”

In the case of Scotland and the rest of the UK, a couple of other issues may merit specific negotiation:

  1. demarcation of maritime boundary in North Sea
  2. state pension
  3. welfare benefits

This gives nine big issues to be negotiated.  There will be other issues to resolve such as diplomatic representation and the future of broadcasting and the BBC.  However these and other issues are more the stuff of political debate within an independent Scotland.

It should not prove too difficult for the two governments to come up with their own list of the most important issues to be resolved.  They do not need to agree at this point on everything.   Where they agree it goes into the joint, agreed statement.  If their are differences we can be told about them.  Remember the idea is to provide us the voters with as much clarity as possible about what will happen after a ‘Yes’ vote.

When it comes to how these issues will be resolved - the how of the negotiations - there may be less scope for agreement in advance.  However some general principles could be established beforehand.  For example in the case of Czechoslovakia two principles were agreed on early in the process.  These were:

  1. fixed property would be owned by the Republic in which it was located
  2. movables would be divided on a per capita basis - this was agreed at 2:1 in favour of the Czech Republic.

In practice there were important exemptions to the first principle, as most of the Federal buildings and property were in Prague, the Federal capital, located in what was to become the Czech Republic.  In recognition of this imbalance Slovakia received financial compensation in lieu.  Something similar will probably be required here as the UK is one of the most centralized states in the world and most UK government buildings and property are located in London.  The second general principle was based on population.  It should not be beyond the wit of both the UK and Scottish governments to agree on something similar and to announce this publicly before the referendum.

It would also be good and encouraging if the two governments could agree on some statement about the spirit in which any negotiations will be conducted.  They need not further than the Queen’s recent visit to the Republic of Ireland, another former part of the UK.  While in Dublin the Queen had this to say about UK-Irish relations:  “Together we have much to celebrate: the ties between our people, the shared values, and the economic, business and cultural links that make us so much more than just neighbours, that make us firm friends and equal partners.”  It is certainly the aim of the Scottish government that Scotand and the rest of the UK remain firm friends and equal partners.  Will the current UK government make such an explicit statement in regard to Scotland?

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Should Scotland be an Independent Country?

At long last the wrangling and complaining about the wording for the referendum question is over.  With a clear victory for the Yes camp.  Though the Electoral Commission has rejected the Scottish government's preferred question - Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? - their alternative is pretty much the same.  At great deal of fuss was made by Unionists over the phrase, Do you agree.  However their alternative, which called for an I agree/I disagree responsive was dismissed out of hand.  The key for all Yes campaigners is that the question, even in its shortened form still requires a simple Yes/No response.  So much better to be campaigning for Yes vote.  Especially when the Unionists still cannot come up with anything positive to offer for staying in the UK.  Their campaign is all about how Scotland is too wee and too poor.  No vision and nothing to inspire us.  

It is also worth noting that the Electoral Commission has called upon both the UK and Scottish governments to provide clarity about what will happen after the referendum, whatever the result.   To quote from their report, "We will ask both Governments to agree a joint position, for example, on the timescales for negotiating independence and the roles of the UK and Scottish Parliament in agreeing it following a ‘Yes’ vote, or for taking forward discussions on the future of Scotland following a ‘No’ vote."  Seems a very sensible suggestion to me.  Worth pointing out how insistent the Unionists were in demanding that the Scottish government accept without question the recommendations of the Electoral Commission.  I wonder if the Unionists will be equally insistent in demanding that the UK government accepts this recommendation from the Electoral Commission?  Any bets?  So far the UK government has strenuously refused to participate in anything that might bring some clarity to the debate.  I wonder what they have to hide?