The Economist is havering again

Improved Economist front page

Improved Economist front page by Thomas Widmann, on Flickr.

In the most recent issue of The Economist, there are four articles about Scottish independence, as well as a photo of a glaikit-looking man with a bad Saltire facepaint and a Buchanan-tartan scarf (which isn’t a good way to win me over, given that I’ve married into the Buchanan clan).

There are lots of errors, omissions and tendentious vocabulary in all the articles, so a full fisk would be a massive undertaking. Instead, I’ve picked out a few bits and pieces below.

“Don’t leave us this way”

The leader sets the tone and places The Economist — yet again — firmly in the No camp.

Britain doesn’t feel like a nation on the verge of cracking up. Many have clutched patriotic flags and wept this summer — but most of them were fans of the English football team.

This might be how it felt in London, but obviously there weren’t many supporters of the English football team in Scotland, and the independence campaign is now starting to be very visible north of the border. The person who wrote this clearly hasn’t been to Scotland recently.

A democratic, peaceful, well-governed nation state is a blessing which should not be casually thrown away.

Is the UK democratic? The unelected House of Lords still plays a major role! Is the UK peaceful? There were riots in London not that long ago, and I doubt people in Iraq and Afghanistan would praise British peacefulness! Is the UK well-governed? There are new scandals all the time, showing us the level of nepotism and corruption that is commonplace in Westminster! Is the UK a nation state? Better Together campaigners keep telling us it’s a union of nations, and not a nation state at all!

Tellingly, most members of ethnic minorities describe themselves as British rather than English or Scottish.

While that’s true in England, it again shows they haven’t been to Scotland recently. Here ethnic minorities happily call themselves Italian Scots, Pakistani Scots, English Scots, and so on.

“How did it come to this”

This article is the best by far — probably because the author actually has been to Scotland. However, it’s by no means perfect:

The impression is of a party promising Scandinavian-style public services supported by taxation closer to American levels. That is fantasy, not socialism.

This is of course a complete misrepresentation of reality. Nobody has talked about American levels of taxation, but simply a slightly lower corporation tax than in the rUK in order to attract more businesses. And although Scandinavian-style public services would be great, that’s a long-term ambition. Here and now we’re talking about practical measures such as providing enough childcare to allow women to return to the labour market — something which will probably be self-financing.

“Dear Prime Minister and First Minister”

Although the idea behind this article (to discuss the independence negotiation options) is great, it’s unfortunately full of errors.

The timetable will be contentious, too. Mr Salmond claims that Scotland could become independent on March 23rd 2016 [...]. That is fanciful. [...] [S]uch breakneck negotiations will store up problems for the future. [...] A deadline of 2018 would be more sensible.

[...]

Past break-ups suggest that even after independence day, fiddly negotiations will continue. The Czechs and Slovaks only reached agreement on Czechoslovakia’s gold reserves in 1999, seven years after they had opted to break up.

As I’ve discussed many times in the past, the UK will be almost ungovernable between a Yes vote and Scottish independence day because you cannot implement anything that the Scottish Government doesn’t agree with. This means that a year and a half is probably the maximum Westminster can put up with, so negotiating until 2018 is simply not going to happen.

It’s much more likely deals will quickly be made on the really important issues, followed by further negotiations after independence day, just like the Czechs and Slovaks did.

The second [principle] should be that movable assets (such as arms) be split proportionately and that immovable ones (such as public buildings) remains with the state they are in.

This might be a fine principle, but I guess it means that Scotland gets the nuclear weapons, which Westminster might not particularly like. Also, lots of shared institutions are placed in London, so giving them all to the rUK without any compensation might be unfair.

[Y]ou will need to strike a grand bargain on defence. This may involve the RUK supporting Scotland’s NATO application and helping it assemble viable armed forces, in return for a long-term deal to postpone Trident’s move (something akin to Britain’ 99-year lease of Hong Kong from China).

This is simply not going to happen. The SNP has been very explicit that they will not accept a long-term deal that keeps Trident in Scotland. Also, NATO isn’t that important to most Scots, so it’s not an efficient threat to make people accept Trident. NATO might also not want a huge hole in the middle of their territory, so I’d be surprised if they decided to be too bloody-minded about Trident.

It would make little sense to insist on splitting the BBC, which benefits from economies of scale and could adopt a federal structure fairly easily.

They want us to keep the Westminster Propaganda Corporation?!? This is simply not going to happen. We’re going to create our own public-service broadcaster, and we’ll agree a deal (like Ireland’s) that’ll allow us to watch the BBC, too.

[A]fter independence the RUK could well opt to import cheaper green electricity from continental Europe.

Would it really be cheaper? But even if that was the case, the cables aren’t there — the existing ones are already running at full capacity. So they couldn’t do this immediately.

[Scotland will need] a dialling code (+424 is the most likely choice) and an internet domain (though the Seychelles have nabbed .sc, and Sierra Leone has .sl).

It’s good to see that The Economist reads Arc of Prosperity (this and this). I just wish they would read the newer articles, too.

“A costly solitude”

This final article deals with the economic aspects, but unfortunately they’re being unnecessarily negative.

[O]ver the next 50 years, the Scottish workforce will actually shrink (the rest of Britain’s will grow). The number of pensioners will rise.

The forecast that these numbers stem from are showing what will happen if Scotland remains part of the UK. In other words, as a British region, Scotland will grow older and poorer. This needs to change, but that requires access to some policy levers that are only available to independent countries (such as immigration policies).

Excluding oil, Scotland ran a public-sector deficit of £14 billion in 2012-13. At 11% of GDP that is a bigger gap than in crisis-stricken Greece and Ireland.

Excluding oil is crazy, given it’s there at the moment. Also, once you subtract the costs of Trident, HS2 or many other of Westminster’s white elephants, the deficit shrinks to much more reasonable levels.

Scottish productivity is 11% lower than the rest of Britain’s; anaemic exporting, together with a shortage of innovative firms and low R&D investment, helps to explain this lag.

It’s true that Scotland has problems in these areas, but that’s because it’s been impossible to fix them while part of the UK. As an independent country we can do something about this — for instance by making it worthwhile for companies to invest more in R&D.

To sum up, The Economist managed to disappoint again — although this issue wasn’t nearly as abusive as their infamous Skintland front page.

I had hoped they would finally have sent some unbiased reporters to Scotland to find out exactly what is happening up here, but I guess they’re too much a part of the Westminster bubble.

They should heed the final words of their second article: “The polls suggest they will not [form a new country]. But that is not how it feels right now on the streets of Glasgow.”

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Posted in media, Westminster | 8 Comments

Voting No because of Salmond is counterproductive

David Cameron in Battle with Alex Salmond over Scottish Referendum

David Cameron in Battle with Alex Salmond over Scottish Referendum by Surian Soosay, on Flickr.

I think Alex Salmond does a very good job as First Minister, but I fully respect that he’s not everybody’s favourite politician. However, apparently this dislike is making many people vote No:

In the Survation poll of 1003 Scots, 36 per cent said the thought of Salmond running an independent Scotland is pushing them towards a No vote in September’s referendum.

[...]

Only 12 per cent of voters say Salmond has made them more likely to vote Yes, while 46 per cent say their view of him won’t change the way they vote and six per cent are unsure how it will impact on their decision.

This is barking mad! It would be like being against the Act of Union in 1707 solely because of a personal dislike of the Earl of Seafield (one of Scotland’s most prominent politicians at the time).

Also, Alex Salmond is 59 years old, so he’s unlikely to continue to dominate Scottish politics for many years. In twenty years’ time, when he’s been a pensioner for a good number of years, how will it feel to have voted note just because of a personal antipathy?

However, even if getting rid of Salmond seems like the most important goal in politics (which is absurd given the very real problems this country is facing), voting Yes is the best way to achieve this.

After a Yes vote, the Scottish political landscape will change dramatically, and one of the main victims of this process is likely to be the SNP.

The SNP is a very broad church, and the glue that holds the party together is the quest for independence. Once that has been achieved, it will need to redefine itself in different terms, for instance as Scotland’s Social-Democratic Party, and while that might keep a majority of the party’s current supporters happy, many activists and voters will be lost to other parties. Even if Salmond wanted to, it’s by no means obvious he’d survive this change as leader.

On the other hand, if it’s a No vote in September, I expect activists will flock to the SNP in even greater numbers. The two-year referendum campaign has convinced so many people that independence is the right way forward for Scotland, and a No vote will just be seen as a temporary hiccough (unless No wins by a landslide, and that’s clearly not going to happen). It might even force Salmond to remain as leader for longer than he had anticipated, because his experience will be invaluable in the struggle to prevent Westminster from running roughshod over Scotland in the aftermath of a No vote.

The conclusion is clear. If you hate Salmond and the SNP, and you just wish Scotland had a “normal” political landscape rather than one defined primarily by the independence question, you should vote Yes to independence.

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Posted in postindependence, SNP | 11 Comments

A fax democracy?

Abandoned Fax Machine

Abandoned Fax Machine by Abhisek Sarda, on Flickr.

There was a rather odd article by professor Vernon Bogdanor, David Cameron’s former politics tutor at Oxford University, in The Guardian recently.

In the first half, he seems to argue that Scotland will have a lot of influence — although he makes it sound like it would be a bad thing because we might not always want to copy Westminster:

[T]he EU, despite its rhetoric, has not succeeded in establishing a common foreign or security policy. Indeed, in most of the foreign policy crises of the last 25 years – the first Gulf war, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Iraq war – the EU has been divided.

An independent Scotland, therefore, could decide its own foreign and defence policy. The SNP proposes that Scotland should become a non-nuclear state. An independent Scotland could, if it so wished, leave Nato. And we only have to look across the Irish Sea to appreciate that Ireland has considerable scope for independent policies. Whereas in 1914 Ireland, as part of the UK, was a combatant in the first world war, an independent Ireland in 1939 chose neutrality in the second. It makes a great deal of difference, therefore, which country one belongs to.

However, he then seems to change his mind and starts arguing that Scotland will become a fax democracy in thrall to Westminster:

Scotland would no longer send MPs to Westminster. Scotland would be represented in London not by MPs and by a member of the cabinet, the Scotland secretary, but by a high commissioner. So Scotland would have no political leverage over decisions made at Westminster.

[...]

An independent Scotland would have no right to a shared currency or shared social union. Its only right would be to propose them. It would then be up to the rest of the UK, a country in which Scotland would no longer be represented and would have no electoral or political leverage, to decide. The terms of independence could not depend on Scotland alone.

A yes vote would be a vote to disclaim the union. It would not then be possible for Scotland unilaterally to choose which aspects of that union it was able to retain. The nation would have to negotiate for what it now enjoys as a right.

The position of an independent Scotland negotiating with the rest of the UK would resemble that of Norway negotiating with the rest of the EU. Norway is in the position of a lobbyist – sometimes called a “fax democracy”, because the proposals of the council of ministers are faxed to Norway for its comments. But whatever these comments are, it is rare for the council to alter its proposals.

An independent Scotland would be a mere lobbyist in Westminster – and would also be in danger of becoming a fax democracy.

This is really odd. Professor Bogdanor seems to confuse the independence negotiations with life as an independent country, and it’s strange how he can even begin to see Scotland’s relationship with the rUK as similar to Norway’s non-membership of the EU.

Of course the independence negotiations will be conducted between Scotland and the rUK, not between Scotland and the UK (in other words, Scotland wouldn’t be represented on both sides of the table). However, we’re talking about a negotiation here (“a discussion set up or intended to produce a settlement or agreement” according to the CED), so obviously it won’t be a case of the rUK deciding the terms and conditions for independence unilaterally after receiving a fax from Scotland.

Once Scotland has become an independent country, it’s true Scotland will be represented by a high commissioner in London (Commonwealth countries tend to call their emissaries high commissioners rather than ambassadors). However, Westminster laws won’t apply north of the border any more, so Scotland won’t have any reason to fax comments down to Westminster. Of course some laws will have implications for Scotland, but that won’t be unique to rUK laws — no country exists in complete isolation — some Norwegian or Irish laws will also be of interest to Holyrood. This is one of the reasons why countries have embassies abroad.

The reason Norway is occasionally called a fax democracy is because Norway is part of the EU’s Single Market, but without being part of the EU. This means that when the EU makes decisions in this area (through the normal EU institutions — the Commission, the Council and the Parliament), Norway is not represented at all. All Norway can do is to send a fax begging the EU to take its views into account, but if the EU ignores the requests, Norway will still have to implement the decision. This would be almost like withdrawing the Scottish MPs from Westminster while remaining part of the UK.

It seems to me that professor Bogdanor hasn’t really understood that Scotland will be a completely normal independent country after independence. We won’t depend on Westminster any more. There won’t be any need to send them any faxes.

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Posted in EU, Norway | 9 Comments

Let’s campaign and let campaign!

BBC bias demonstration

BBC bias demonstration by Thomas Widmann, on Flickr.

It must be easy to run an astroturf campaign. Because all your activists are actually your employees, they’ll do exactly what you want them to do. There’s no dissent, no mixed messages.

However, astroturf campaigns often fail because people can tell something’s not right. They can see that those campaigners don’t actually believe what they’re saying, and the whole thing looks too much like a pretty façade with nothing behind it. Also, unless you’ve got endless supplies of money, it’s difficult to hire enough staff to create enough activity on the ground.

A real grassroots campaign is very different. It’s full of different people with their own ideas, hopes and goals. You can make suggestions to them, but if they don’t see the point, they’re unlikely to follow your lead.

The Yes campaign has over the past couple of years developed into one of the most impressive grassroots movements of recent years. Lots of real people — often with no previous political engagement — are now spending many hours every week campaigning for a Yes vote. For a long time, formal guidance from Yes Scotland was minimal, so people found their own ways of doing things — they created their own events and their own campaign materials.

Recently, however, there have been signs that some people at Yes Scotland HQ have started to worry about their lack of control. For instance, they’ve been distancing themselves from Wings over Scotland and yesterday’s BBC bias demonstration, and too many people seem to spend half their time telling other people off on Twitter for tweeting the wrongs links or attending the wrong events.

It’s almost as if some people have got a bit fed up with their real grassroots campaigners. Perhaps they had hoped they’d suddenly start behaving like astroturf employees during the regulated campaign. Perhaps cautious campaigners just want everybody to be cautious — Wee Ginger Dug pointed out that “the more cautious in any campaign for civil rights often criticise those who are fearless.”

Such cautious advice is likely to backfire, however. Activists have spent the past two years building their own networks and campaigns, and they’re not likely to take kindly to orders from above (at let’s not forget that when Hope Street was the focus of negative media stories in the past, activists didn’t take to Twitter to criticise their actions).

Also, to many activists, blogs such as Wings provide a very important service. As Robin McAlpine put it:

[Wings over Scotland] has lifted our spirits throughout the campaign. When we wake up in the morning and Yes Scotland isn’t in the papers (why?) and the SNP is being timid and talking like an accountant, it is often Wings that is the primary source of commentary that doesn’t seem always to accept the premise set by the mainstream media as the only possible frame for discussing independence. It makes it OK to be both angry and excited while becoming informed at the same time.

I completely understand why Yes Scotland HQ might feel at times that they need to lead things a bit more. However, I don’t think they’re going about it the right way.

I’m a father, and here’s some parental advice: If your kids are having fun baking a cake while making a complete mess, but you’d rather they were out cutting the lawn, don’t just storm into the kitchen and shout at them. If you do, they’re likely to storm up to their room and slam the door, and you’ll be left with a messy kitchen and an uncut lawn. It’s much better to join them in the kitchen, give them hints about how to tidy up as you go along, and try to talk them into cutting the lawn while the cake is in the oven. In this way, you’re likely to end up with a slightly messy kitchen, a nice cake and a beautiful lawn.

In the same way, if some campaigners spend their time criticising other campaigners for their campaigning style, the inevitable result is that everybody ends up doing less campaigning. It’s much better to make positive suggestions and just be open about the fact that it’s a grassroots campaign where the HQ isn’t always in charge of everything. Diversity is our strength, so we shouldn’t suddenly start saying it’s a problem.

Of course you sometimes cringe at other people’s actions. That’s life. Nobody’s perfect, but we all have something to contribute. Altering the well-known adage live and let live ever so slightly, may I suggest that we all simply campaign and let campaign?

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Posted in Yes campaign | 23 Comments

The election of Juncker means we must vote Yes

Eu  Council: President Van Rompuy welcoming the British PM David Cameron

Eu Council: President Van Rompuy welcoming the British PM David Cameron by President of the European Council, on Flickr.

It’s now certain that Jean-Claude Juncker will become President of the European Commission. The European Council (the heads of government of the 28 EU states) voted 26–2 in favour of Juncker — only the UK and Hungary voted against — and getting approved by the European Parliament is a formality in this case.

I’m not at all impressed by the way David Cameron has conducted his campaign against Juncker, and it bodes ill for the UK’s future in the EU.

From a federalist continental European perspective, Juncker looked like a popular and democratic choice. Everybody has been complaining about the lack of democratic legitimacy for ages, and an obvious improvement was made possible by the fact that the Lisbon Treaty requires the election of the Commission President to “take account of the elections to the European Parliament”. Each of the European political parties (political parties in European countries are affiliated to these) therefore put forward a candidate (a so-called “Spitzenkandidat”, using the German word) prior to the elections. Most voters in the UK might not have been aware of this, but a vote for Scottish Labour was also a vote for Martin Schulz to become Commission President. The result of the elections was that the European People’s Party (which didn’t field any candidates in this country) again became the largest party, and therefore it was natural that their Spitzenkandidat, Jean-Claude Juncker, should become President.

However, Westminster wants to roll back the EU, so they block all moves towards federalism (which in an EU context means making joint decisions democratically in the European Parliament and the European Council). It was therefore obvious that Westminster didn’t want Juncker — he’s a committed federalist, he was backed by the European Parliament, and he didn’t owe Britain any favours. They wanted to veto him and instead elect a useless compromise candidate that would ensure the EU didn’t achieve much.

This has often been Westminster’s way. Perhaps the most blatant example was seen 20 years ago, when John Major vetoed the appointment of Jean-Luc Dehaene, after which Jacques Santer was appointed in his stead. Since then, national vetoes have been removed from lots of places in the EU, and Cameron didn’t have the power to veto Juncker, which is perhaps why this tried and tested method of sabotaging the EU didn’t work this time.

In retrospect, Cameron should have tried to prevent Juncker from becoming the EPP’s Spitzenkandidat, but that was impossible because of his stupid decision to pull the Tories out of the EPP and set up its own Eurosceptic political group (the ECR), which now includes Danish and Finnish xenophobic parties in a failed attempt to prevent UKIP from getting enough members to create its own group in the parliament.

However, this leaves Cameron and Westminster in a very bad position. They have antagonised the new President of the Commission by making their opposition to him very public, and it has also become clear that the other EU countries aren’t bending over backwards in the hope that it will entice the British population to vote to remain in the EU in the in/out referendum.

It seems increasingly likely that Cameron won’t be able to negotiate any significant exemptions, and that rather than rolling back European integration, the threat of a British exit will actually encourage the federalists, which again will make it increasingly hard to get the mainly Eurosceptic English electorate to vote to remain in the EU.

Today’s events have made it much more likely that the country led by Westminster will leave the EU in a couple of years’ time. The question that remains is whether Scotland remains in the EU together with Ireland, Denmark and Sweden.

The move towards European federalism is actually a good thing for Scotland (because the alternative is that the big countries call the shots), and Juncker is a rather good candidate that an independent Scotland most likely would have supported.

However, we can only chose to remain in the EU if we’re independent. If we vote No to independence and the UK votes to leave the EU, the only thing keeping the country afloat will be the global financial services in London. It would be a disaster for Scotland, probably even worse than the Thatcher years.

The election of Juncker makes a Yes vote even more imperative. It doesn’t serve Scotland well to be represented by these numpties in Westminster who don’t even understand how the EU works, who think only in terms of vetoes and rebates.

We must be independent!

Addendum (29/6): Alyn Smith MEP and Iain Macwhirter make some interesting observations about this in today’s Sunday Herald. First the MEP:

Cameron does not know how Europe works, he does not know the rules, he has ignored and belittled most of the other players and, worse, he gives every impression of not caring less. “He’s f***ed it up, he’s totally f***ed it it up.” Excuse the language, but those are not my words, but those of Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski — an urbane, smart, arch Anglophile Atlanticist, and an Oxford graduate and Bullingdon Club member to boot — in secret recordings, in a scandal running large in Poland.

That’s the way David Cameron’s closest allies talk about him when they think the recorders are off. In the cafés and bars of Brussels in recent weeks I’ve heard worse language than that used to describe the Prime Minister.

And now Iain Macwhirther:

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in England recently and I can confirm that this debate about federalism barely figures on the metropolitan radar. What does figure is a very widespread hostility to the European Union of a kind we very rarely hear in Scotland. This isn’t got up by the press. Many ordinary English voters seriously believe that Europe is bossing them around, taking their cash, flooding them with immigrants and generally taking away their liberties. The strength of feeling is quite startling to those of us who have seen European integration as a broadly positive movement – an expression of internationalism.

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Posted in EU, Tories, Westminster | 26 Comments

Vote Yes to save the Danish welfare state

P3313479

P3313479 by tracy apps, on Flickr.

Denmark used to have a great welfare state, but it’s getting undermined at the moment.

For instance, private hospitals are taking over more and more of the Danish NHS (like in England). Unemployment benefits are being reduced. Nursery prices are going up. Tax rates for high earners are getting cut.

Interestingly, it’s not because Denmark cannot afford the welfare state at the moment, but because politicians and civil servants are primarily getting their inspiration from the US and from England, so they’re under the impression that it’s the only way forward.

To a large extent, the Danish political left lost its mojo years ago. A majority of people want to preserve the welfare state that they love, but they keep getting told its unaffordable (which is simply not true).

Meanwhile, in Scotland the independence debate has energised lots of people, so the whole place is buzzing with new ideas. We’ve also lived with Westminster’s neo-liberal consensus for so long that we know why it’s wrong.

Projects like the Common Weal are thus showing the way forward for the welfare state, and it’s in many ways years ahead of the Danish debate.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Danish politicians start flocking to Scotland soon after independence to learn about the Common Weal and find inspiration to rebuild and improve the Danish welfare state.

Most Danes might not realise it, but Denmark needs Scotland to vote Yes.

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Posted in common weal, Denmark | 2 Comments

Seen elsewhere

Today I produced my 10,000th tweet. Of course — as anybody who follows me on Twitter will know — a large part of my tweets are links to independence-related stories, prefixed with the words “Seen elsewhere”.

These links are produced automatically whenever I bookmark a link using Delicious, and they also end up in the left-hand column.

I started doing this towards towards the end of 2011, and since then I’ve bookmarked slightly more than 4000 links.

Here are the top 20 sites I’ve linked to:

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Posted in blogging | 2 Comments