Category Archives: common weal

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.

Vote Yes to save the Danish welfare state

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.

Scotland as a Nordic country

Scotland and the other Nordic countriesA year from now, the most important referendum in the history of Scotland will take place.

In foreign policy, England has always tended to ignore the Nordic countries and preferred to look south towards France, and the UK has of course always been dominated by England in this regard, but after independence Scotland can revert to being a Northern European country.

Obviously, Scotland isn't part of Scandinavia like Denmark, Norway and Sweden. However, can an independent Scotland be regarded as a Nordic country? If so, joining the Nordic Council would be possible.

The usual definition of the Nordic countries includes only Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Greenland, the Faeroe Islands and the Åland Islands. However, a brief glance at a map shows that Scotland would be a natural addition to the list.

Scandinavia is largely defined by language -- Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are mutually intelligible after a few weeks' exposure. This isn't true for the other languages of the Nordics, however. Also, people from all the Nordic countries are increasingly using English amongst themselves, so not knowing a Scandinavian language might not be a real problem.

In fact, I have a suspicion that the Finns and the Icelanders might be quite happy to get an excuse to use English -- although Finnish-speaking Finns learn Swedish at school, almost none of them are able to understand spoken Danish.

Historically, the non-Scandinavian Nordic countries are, or have been, ruled by a Scandinavian one: the Faeroes and Greenland are still controlled by Denmark (although they have devolution), Iceland was Danish until 1944, and Finland and Åland were part of Sweden until 1809.

Orkney and Shetland were part of Denmark-Norway until 1468, when they were pawned to Scotland, and many Scottish islands were under Viking rule a few centuries before that, so there are definitely some historical connexions there that might be useful when submitting the membership application.

However, at the end of the day the Nordic Council is a club for small Northern European countries with a Social-Democratic mindset. If Scotland goes down the Common Weal path, I expect the Nordic Countries will be more than happy to let Scotland join.

Higher taxes, but more money in your pocket, too

Halftone, a photo by I'm George on Flickr.
When people discuss proposals such as the Common Weal, you often hear complaints that taxes would have to be sky-high to finance a Scandinavian-style welfare state.

Taxes are indeed a wee bit higher in Scandinavia (but not drastically so, once deductions are taken into account), but most Scandinavians nevertheless have more money coming into their bank account than their current Scots counterparts.

This is because salaries are typically higher in Scandinavia than here. (The exception is at the very top -- if you make more than £100k a year, you might be better off under the current system.)

For instance, in Denmark the minimum wage is about £12 per hour, so almost twice as much as in the UK. I believe somebody on this salary would pay about 30% tax in Denmark, whereas they would pay nothing in the UK at the moment, so the take-home pay is still almost 50% higher for the Danish worker, although they're paying much more tax, too.

Combined with subsidised child-care and other elements of the cradle-to-grave welfare state, most people would definitely be better off if an independent Scotland introduced the Common Weal proposals.

Sweden in the north, Freeport Ho! in the south

The divided electorate in England and Wales
The divided electorate in England and Wales
In their book Going South: Why Britain will have a Third World Economy by 2014, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson claim the UK needs to make a fundamental choice: Should it move in the direction of a Scandinavian welfare state (similar to the Common Weal ideas currently being discussed in Scotland), or should it become a low-tax state based on free trade (called "Freeport Ho!" and "Freeport Britain" in their book)?

They don't really discuss Scottish independence in their book, and they seem to think that the UK must make the choice as a whole.

However, it appears to me that Scotland and London have already chosen. Scotland wants to go down the Common Weal path (and what we're really discussing in the independence referendum campaign is whether we can convince the rUK to go down that road with us, or whether we should do so alone), and Greater London has practically decided to become a global free port (which is why so many people in the South-East want to leave the EU, dismantle the NHS, and all that).

It's probably the case that a majority of people in Wales and Northern England actually agree more with Scotland than with London, but given that the Tories are essentially a Southern English party (see the map above), and that Labour are forever chasing the swing voters in Southern England, they have unfortunately handed over the power to make this decision to London.

Only in Scotland have we got a chance to choose a different route, which is why we have to vote Yes now, before the process of becoming Freeport Ho! makes it utterly impossible for Scotland to make a different choice.