Refugee cities

Refugee camp - ©Elisa Finocchiaro
Refugee camp – ©Elisa Finocchiaro.
Lots of people are worried about refugees fleeing to Europe at the moment, but the numbers are actually quite low:

Q: So why are the numbers higher than ever?

A: They’re not – according to the EU’s own figures, there were 672,000 EU asylum applications in 1992 (when there were only 15 members of the EU), compared to 626,000 last year (when the EU had grown to 28 members with a total population of 500 million). It is true, however, that numbers had dropped substantially in the interim.

Q: How many actually apply for asylum in the UK?

A: According to the latest government statistics: “There were 25,020 asylum applications in the year ending March 2015, an increase of 5% compared with the previous year (23,803). The number of applications remains low relative to the peak number of applications in 2002 (84,132).”

It’s actually an absurdly low number — even the 2002 figure works out at something like 0.13% of the UK’s population (or 66 refuges per town of 50,000 people). The real problem is probably that people can’t tell the difference between refugees and immigrants, and that most countries aren’t very good at integrating their new inhabitants.

I wonder whether a different approach might work better. There was an radical proposal in an article in The Telegraph recently:

Today, 195 sovereign countries are recognised around the world. But we need one more: a country that any refugee, from anywhere in the world, can call home. A country where each citizen has the same legal rights to reside, work, pursue an education, raise a family, buy and sell property, or start a business — rights that most people have but may not cherish. A country where everyone is an equal citizen, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or any other personal status. A completely inclusive and compassionate nation, in which every refugee is automatically granted citizenship.

I’m not sure this would work, to be honest. The new refugee country might quickly tire of receiving all the refugees of the world and start asking other countries to do their bit, too.

It’s possible, however, that sending refugees to new towns would work better than trying to squeeze them into existing cities. I started thinking about this when I read about the history of Store Magleby south of Copenhagen:

Dutch immigrants [were] invited to the country by King Christian II in 1521, because he had a vision of growing vegetables and improve the farming on the Island of Amager just outside Copenhagen. [Many of these lived in] Store Magleby, known as the “Dutch Village”. The reason was that it was a much closed society that held the privileges they had since arriving in Amager and which had been confirmed by each new king. […] The privileges meant that the village had total autonomy after Dutch model. This included both the local and internal, as well as the judicial and ecclesiastical matters.

I believe Store Magleby didn’t lose its special status until the middle of the 19th century, so the arrangement lasted for more than 300 years.

That’s perhaps taking things to extremes, but in theory it wouldn’t be too hard to build a new town for 100,000 people somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, fill it with refugees from Syria (preferably from one ethno-religious group), and not make their permanent residence permits valid outwith this town for the first ten or twenty years. The schools could teach a mixture of a Syrian and a Scottish curriculum at first but gradually shift to the normal Scottish one. Slowly people from New Aleppo would probably start moving to other parts of Scotland, and ordinary Scots would take their place, so eventually it would probably become like any other Scottish town, but it would be a gradual process that wouldn’t upset anybody.

Another advantage of building new towns for the refugees would be that there would be lots of jobs available — like any other town it would need doctors, teachers, builders, shopkeepers and so on.

I’m of course not suggesting that all refugees fleeing to the UK should be housed in Scotland every year, but surely Europe is big enough that ten new refugee cities could be built in various locations every year.

Would this model work better than the current model? Or would it have unforeseen consequences?

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Changing the debate

Anti-Margaret Thatcher badge
Anti-Margaret Thatcher badge, a photo by dannybirchall on Flickr.
Margaret Thatcher was once asked what she considered her greatest achievement. She replied, “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”

Labour’s current desire to abstain on most of the Tories’ welfare cuts is just one example of how true Thatcher’s words were. Margaret Thatcher’s success (and the fall of Communism, to be fair) made Tony Blair and most other Labour politicians believe that the only way forward was to change Labour into a carbon copy of the Tories. The result of this was that there was hardly any debate on a UK level on the alternatives to Conservative ideas until the SNP tsunami in May.

Now there are 56 SNP MPs, and this is already changing the debate in the House of Commons and within the Conservative government, as pointed out by James Forsyth:

The party’s Westminster leader Angus Robertson now has two goes each week at Prime Minister’s Questions. This might seem like a trivial detail but it is worth remembering how much of the No. 10 machine is geared towards readying the Prime Minister for his most important half hour in the Commons. George Osborne, Michael Gove and several of Cameron’s senior aides devote Wednesday mornings to helping him prepare for this appearance. ‘We’re having to take a lot more interest in the minutiae of Scottish politics than before,’ one of those involved in these prep sessions tells me.

Readying Cameron to face Robertson’s barbs means ensuring he is well-informed about events north of the border — about the SNP’s record at Holyrood. Slowly but surely, the Tory attack machine is turning its attention to being able to rubbish the governing record of the SNP as effectively as they trashed the last Labour government. One adviser in charge of this says that ‘for years, things have been hidden away in the Scottish Parliament. Now, they are moving front and centre.’

There are also many signs that Jeremy Corbyn is rapidly changing the debate within Labour. If he wins, there’s a possibility that Thatcher’s greatest achievement will be undone (unless, of course, the Blairites decide to split the party or commit some other form of collective harakiri).

Thoughtful right-wing politicians are starting to realise this. For instance, Tory councillor Oliver Cooper recently wrote this:

No matter how incredible or ludicrous, Corbyn would still have six questions at PMQs. His frontbench would still have a representative on Question Time and Newsnight. His party’s policy announcements and press releases would get just as much news coverage as a credible opposition.

In short, Labour being Labour, they’ll still have the same platform, no matter how bizarre their leader’s views. The only difference is Corbyn’s views will be more left-wing, so will shift the entire political debate to the left. Long-term, so long as Labour and the Conservatives remain the two major parties in the UK, the only way to make progress is to persuade Labour to accept our position. Our ideas don’t win just when our party does, but when the other party advocates our ideas, too.

Instead, a Corbyn victory would lend credibility to the far-left’s rejection of reality: giving a megaphone to their already over-blown and bombastic politics of fear and envy. Inevitably, this would skew the discourse, letting Corbyn’s ideas become the default alternative to the Conservatives. Corbyn’s brand of socialism would poison the groundwater of British politics for a generation: influencing people, particularly young people, across the political spectrum.

I don’t agree with his characterisation of Corbyn’s policies as a rejection of reality (I’d argue most Tories are much further removed from it in fact), but I think he makes a very good point about how it would undermine Conservative ideas (which would be great in my opinion).

The commentator Iain Martin is having similar concerns:

Just as the rise of UKIP has had an enormous impact on the British debate on Europe, forcing Cameron into a referendum he did not want as his party felt it needed to counter Farage, a distinct new Left movement would exert a gravitational pull on the centre-left more broadly and on the national conversation about taxation, ownership, profit and constitutional reform of the voting system and the House of Lords. The rise of Corbyn is already forcing terrified Labour moderates such as Andy Burnham to say all sorts of silly stuff.

Again, I wouldn’t characterise Burnham’s new-found principles as ‘silly stuff’, but otherwise it’s a sound analysis.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins, the combination of a strong SNP and a left-wing Labour party might finally change the terms of the debate so that the Tories won’t get the easy ride they’ve got used to recently. And once the debate changes, ordinary people might also start to question the neoliberal consensus.

This will be great in many respects, but I do fear that it could make Scottish independence less likely again, simply because it was the total disconnect between the political discourses in Scotland and Westminster that really fired up many Yes activists, so if UK Labour politicians start saying things we agree with, perhaps it will be harder to convince people that we need independence, even though Scotland will of course still only supply 10% of the MPs at Westminster.

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An EVEL matryoshka parliament?

Matryoshka nesting dolls, by B Balaji on Flickr.
Matryoshka nesting dolls, by B Balaji on Flickr.
As many people have pointed out (e.g, Lallands Peat Worrier and The Huffington Post), the Tories’ current plans for English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) actually are pretty meaningless at the moment — they would simply give the English MPs the power to block laws from being passed by a majority involving Scottish MPs if the subject area is devolved (like when Scottish MPs were happy to introduce tuition fees in England under Tony Blair), but they wouldn’t allow English MPs to create or modify laws on their own (such as the current relaxation of the English fox-hunting law).

In effect, the EVEL rules would basically not have any effect during this parliament (given that the Tories have an absolute majority that doesn’t depend on their sole Scottish MP). They might of course become very important under a future Labour government (if we don’t get independence before that happens), but then they could just abolish the EVEL rules again, given the UK Parliament is sovereign.

I have a feeling that many ordinary Tory voters aren’t aware of the current impotence of EVEL, but once they realise, they might get pretty angry and will demand that an even better variety of EVEL is introduced (let’s call it EVEL-ER, borrowing the Chinese word for ‘two’, 二 èr).

So what would EVEL-ER look like? Presumably it would actually exclude Scottish MPs from voting on certain laws altogether. Rather than forcing the Speaker to exclude the MPs at random times, it would probably be easier to assign days to each voting group (e.g., English MPs on Mondays and Tuesdays, English and Welsh MPs on Wednesdays, all MPs on Thursdays). In effect, EVEL-ER would set up at least two new parliaments (an English one and an English-and-Welsh one — I’m not entirely sure where the Northern Irish MPs come into the picture), but sharing MPs and facilities with the House of Commons.

The new EVEL-ER Parliament would thus be a matryoshka parliament — a large parliament containing a smaller parliament containing an even smaller parliament.

EVEL-ER would raise a lot of questions, however. For instance, would the English MPs have their own matryoshka ministers, or would the UK ones simply wear a lot of matryoshka hats?

I can’t help thinking it’d be simpler to set up a proper English Parliament (but then I’m not English) or to split up the UK once and for all (but then I’m not a Unionist).

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We need to campaign for independence now

My daughters were doing their bit during the indyref, too.
My daughters were doing what they could during the indyref, too.
Although the opinion polls are shifting towards Yes, they’re moving at a snail’s pace. (The most recent one had 47.5% Yes vs. 52.5% No.) I personally find it puzzling that no matter what horrors the Tories throw at us, most of the No voters don’t seem to be reconsidering their position.

It’s particularly strange because the months since the referendum have seen the huge landslide towards the SNP, so in many polls this party is now more popular than independence (and that’s ignoring the other Yes parties).

The problem with this is that we’re unlikely to get a new referendum until Yes is significantly ahead of No in all the polls. I don’t think there’s a magic number as such, but Alister Rutherford’s argument that we need 60%+ is pretty sound.

Not only that, but we can’t expect the Tories to listen to the 56 SNP MPs unless they’re backed up by a convincing majority in Scotland. As long as they know that we wouldn’t dare call a new referendum, they can effectively ignore Scotland and concentrate on making their Southern English voters happy.

We have to grasp the nettle: We need to start campaigning for independence again. We must find a way convince 5-10% of the No voters that they should join us. If we can also make them support one of the Yes parties, that’d be great, but I’m actually more interested in their support for independence than in their party-political allegiance. In fact, it might even be helpful to ensure there are independence supporters in all parties and none.

I’d love us to create some huge Yes events where we can all meet, like the wonderful independence marches in Edinburgh. Recent Yes events seem to have been organised by far-left groups and mainly shunned by the main Yes parties, so the SNP and the Greens need to take ownership of them.

Perhaps the best way forward would be to resurrect Yes Scotland — not as a high-cost PR organisation, but as an umbrella group that organises marches and other events and creates Yes materials (badges and car stickers and so on). Like the old Yes Scotland, it could effectively be controlled by the SNP and the Greens.

I know many people are tempted to focus always on the next election, but this means that we keep focussing on the parties rather than the cause itself.

If we want independence, we need to campaign for it. We can’t simply wait for the next referendum to be called.

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Thoughts on Greece

Yes To Grexit
Yes To Grexit by Jan Wellmann, on Flickr.
I love the European Union — it has achieved so much for normal European citizens: Peace, the freedom to travel and (in many cases) prosperity. I also love the idea of a common European currency — although it was terribly exciting as a kid to get exotic notes and coins when travelling, it also made it hard to compare prices and salaries across borders. Indeed, back in the year 2000, I was very active on the Yes side when Denmark held a referendum about joining the Euro (it was narrowly defeated).

However, the EU I liked the best was Jacques Delors’s Commission-run project. Since then, the European Council (where the heads of state get together in private) has taken the lead, and idealism and democracy has suffered.

The EU has disappointed me in at least three regards recently:

Firstly, Barroso and several other European politicians took part in Project Fear’s scaremongering in order to persuade us to remain within the United Kingdom. Given that almost everybody on the pro-independence side supported continued membership of the EU, whereas many people on the No side were already discussing how and when to leave the European Union, that struck me as being rather foolish, short-sighted and undemocratic.

Secondly, the Mediterranean refugee crisis has revealed a huge lack of European solidarity. It’s clear the numbers that arrive in Italy are far too high for one country, but spread across the EU they would be very manageable, and yet lots of countries refuse to do their bit.

Thirdly, the way Greece has been treated has been an unmitigated disaster, not just for Greece but for all of Europe.

The EU has to work in the interest of normal Europeans citizens, and that’s simply not happening in Greece. Normal people are suffering, to a large extent because their former governments borrowed a lot of money and gave it to their rich friends (such as international bankers).

I completely understand that other European countries are worried about moral hazard. Of course you don’t want a situation where a country can simply borrow money and then refuse to pay it back without any negative consequences. However, punishing ordinary Greeks for a century is a rather extreme way to avoid moral hazard, I would have thought.

At the moment, what benefit does Greece actually derive from being part of the Euro? As Frances Coppola put it recently
in Forbes:

Any country can use the Euro as its currency, whether or not it is a member of the Euro. And some do: Montenegro, for example, and Kosovo are both Euro users though they are very far from being accepted into the EU, let alone becoming Euro members. So what distinguishes a Euro member from a Euro user?

Normally, the distinction between a sovereign currency issuer and the (foreign) user of a currency is that the sovereign currency issuer has complete control of the money supply, whereas the user must earn, borrow or buy its currency from external sources. But Greece cannot be considered a sovereign currency issuer. Its central bank can only issue the amount of Euros that the ECB allows it to. That amount has just been frozen by the ECB. Greece must now borrow, buy or earn additional Euros from external sources. That is what currency users have to do, not currency issuers. So Greece has no control of its money supply. It is as if it were using a foreign currency as its domestic currency.

Bloomberg reports that Bulgaria, which is not a Euro member but backs its currency with Euro reserves, has just been allowed to borrow from the ECB at the same rate as Euro members, thus enabling it to firewall its banks from Greek contagion. This is a privilege normally only accorded to Euro members – and it has been WITHDRAWN from Greece. If this is true, then Bulgaria (non-Euro member) can obtain Euros from the ECB while Greece (Euro member) cannot. It is hard to see what benefit Greece’s Euro membership confers, apart from redistribution of seigniorage receipts.

I’m not saying that the best solution would necessarily involve giving a lot of money to the Greek state. Perhaps it’d be better if the Greek banks were to be taken over by the EU, for instance. Or perhaps Greek pensions could be paid by the EU instead. It might be worth looking at what the US would do if a state went bust, or what Germany before 1999 would have done if one of its Länder had done so.

However, some kind of debt foregiveness must surely play a part when a country cannot realistically pay back its debts ever. And Germany of all countries shouldn’t be vetoing it. As the French economist, Thomas Piketty, said to Die Zeit:

When I now hear the Germans say that they deal with debt in a very moral way and firmly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: What a big joke! Germany is the prime example of a country that has never paid its debts. It can teach other countries no lessons. [Wenn ich die Deutschen heute sagen höre, dass sie einen sehr moralischen Umgang mit Schulden pflegen und fest daran glauben, dass Schulden zurückgezahlt werden müssen, dann denke ich: Das ist doch ein großer Witz! Deutschland ist das Land, das nie seine Schulden bezahlt hat. Es kann darin anderen Ländern keine Lektionen erteilen.]

I can’t help thinking that a lot of the differences between the approach taken to Greece comes down to national bankruptcy laws. In Denmark (and Germany, I believe), if you go bankrupt, you will never be entirely free of your debt. I know of people who did something silly in their twenties, got landed with a huge debt, and a result they’ll never be able to buy a house ever — bankruptcy laws are mainly concerned with ensuring that you’re allowed to keep enough money every month to survive. In English-speaking countries, on the other hand, a bankruptcy actually cancels most of your debt, and you’ll be able to start from scratch with a blank slate.

Apart from cancelling debts, the threats have to stop. In a federal state (and that’s more or less what the Eurozone is today), you cannot expect similar political parties to be in power in all parliaments all the time. (In fact the past twenty years have probably been rather exceptional in that regard, because of the way the Social Democratic and Conservative parties became so similar after the collapse of Communism.) The various treaties and constitutions have to be designed in such a way that things don’t collapse in a heap simply because some neo-Marxists get into power in Greece. That said, even inside the UK most politicians seem to be struggling with finding the right response to the rise of the SNP, so it’s not simply a European problem.

The way the majority of EU countries are acting at the moment, I wouldn’t be surprised if Greece eventually decided it’d be better to leave the EU completely, and that would be really dangerous for the rest of us, given the instability of the geopolitical situation at the moment. Europe really needs to get its act together!

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The Single Transferable Vote is the worst option for the SNP

Sådan kan en stemmeseddel se ud. #FV15 #magentalove #aarhus
Danish ballot paper. (Sådan kan en stemmeseddel se ud. #FV15 #magentalove #aarhus by Karen Melchior, on Flickr.)
Although the SNP benefitted hugely from First Past The Post (FPTP) in May (gaining almost all the Scottish seats on 50% of the votes), I remain committed to proportional representation — I believe FPTP is poison for popular engagement, at least in a multi-party system, because so many people feel their vote doesn’t count.

Proportional representation comes in many varieties, however (and some are more proportional than others). We’re already using three different systems in Scotland: (1) The Additional Member System (AMS), which we use for electing the Scottish Parliament; (2) the Single Transferrable Vote (STV), which we use for electing the councils; and (3) d’Hondt, which we use in elections for the European Parliament.

The SNP opted for STV in their recent Westminster manifesto. I can understand why — STV is a decent system in many contexts, especially when the candidates aren’t organised into parties (for instance, it’s a great system for electing members for a committee in an political party). However, it has some shortcomings which makes it less than ideal for Westminster elections.

Firstly, STV benefits those parties who are good at predicting their support. For instance, if May’s election had been held using this system, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would probably not have predicted the scale of their losses, so they would have put forward too many candidates, which could have exaggerated their losses; in the same way, the SNP might not have been bold enough, which again would have harmed them. (This problem can be alleviated by forcing the voters to prioritise all the candidates and not just one or two, but we don’t tend to do that in Scotland.)

Secondly, STV doesn’t help parties with varying levels of support in different areas. In particular, whereas the SNP’s 50% support resulted in nearly 56 out of 59 seats under FPTP, it would probably only have resulted in around 30 seats in Scotland under STV; the fact that the SNP also had supporters in England wouldn’t have led to any additional seats.

The Danish electoral system would be much better for the SNP. Denmark uses a variant of d’Hondt (Sainte-Laguë to be precise) in multi-member constituencies, but crucially all the votes get added up nationally afterwards, and additional seats are allocated in order to ensure that every vote counts. In other words, if the SNP got 50% of the votes in Scotland and about 5% in the rest of the UK so that the UK-wide support was exactly 10%, the SNP would have received 10% of the seats, which would actually be even better than the current 56 seats.

Some years ago I made a simulation of the 2005 Westminster election using the Danish electoral system. I didn’t at that time assume the SNP would have received any votes outwith Scotland, but Nicola Sturgeon would definitely have appealed to many voters down south after her phenomenal performance in the TV debates.

My guess is the SNP chose STV for their manifesto in order to tempt the Lib Dems, and that’s of course a completely valid reason to opt for this, but the Danish system would be much better for the SNP.

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Cheap student halls like in Denmark

Udflugt til Århus
Udflugt til Århus by Michael Budde, on Flickr.
During the second half of my studies in linguistics and computer science at Aarhus University I stayed at the on-campus student halls called Parkkollegierne. I had a small room (about 12 sq m) and shared the kitchen and bathroom with 14 other students. The monthly rent was approximately £150 at the time, including heating and electricity. (Towards the end of my stay there we got broadband and a phone line in each room, but the price was added to the rent.)

Given that Denmark is generally quite a bit dearer than Scotland, and given that Danish students get generous grants from the state for studying (about £400 per month), I had expected student housing would be cheaper in Scotland than in Denmark, so I was quite surprised when I realised that students often pay a small fortune here, whether they live in a student hall or in private accommodation. My stepson is going to Edinburgh to study law in September, and he’s been given a room in a student hall costing more than £500 per month (and that seems to be the average price, for a room that’s not on campus and smaller than the one I had in Århus)!

I simply don’t understand why it’s so dear. There must be legal reasons for it, or some clever property developers would have made some private student halls at half the price and made a fortune. I know there were many problems with overcrowded and unhygienic student accommodation in the 1980s, but if the legislation is now preventing people from offering reasonable accommodation at a fair price, then that’s a huge problem and must be resolved.

Not every student has the option to study while staying with their parents, and we want students to be able to study what they’re good at and interested in, even if it’s far from home, but student halls are simply prohibitively expensive — it will either cost the parents a fortune or increase student debt dramatically.

The Scottish Government should as a matter of priority go on a fact-finding mission to similar countries to find out how they manage to provide affordable student accommodation.

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Scottish Independence with a Scandinavian Slant