Category Archives: Westminster

UK vs EU

People who voted Yes and then Leave (the Yellow Tribe, as I’ve described them in the past) often talk of the UK and the EU as if they were almost the same, and they’re thus often keen to postpone Indyref2 till Brexit is done and dusted. “Why leave one union just to join another?” as they like to say.

However, is this fair? To what extent are the two unions alike? I thought it’d be useful to compare them topic by topic:

UK EU
The Houses of Parliament consist of two chambers. In the House of Commons, 59 out of 650 MPs are representing Scotland (9%). It’s hard to calculate the equivalent for the House of Lords because they don’t represent constituencies, but the Scotsman put the number at 61 out of 760 (8%) in 2015. This should be seen against the fact that Scotland makes up slightly more than 8% of the population of the UK. The European Parliament consists of 571 members. As an independent country, Scotland would probably have 13 MEPs (like Denmark), rather than the current 6, because small countries are over-represented. That would mean that Scotland would have 1.7% of MEPs on a population share of 1%. In the European Council, Scotland would have equal representation with all other member states (1 out of 28), so the same as Malta, Denmark and Germany.
There isn’t a specific number of Scottish ministers in the UK government. At the moment there is only one (David Mundell), but even that isn’t guaranteed (for instance, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland isn’t Irish). The European Commission consists of one commissioner from each member state, so Scotland would always have one.
Westminster is sovereign, so if they want to change Holyrood’s powers, they can do so without consulting Scotland, although in the past they have done so. For instance, abolishing Holyrood altogether would be entirely within their powers if they thought that would be a good idea. The powers of the EU are described in the Treaty of Lisbon, and it requires unanimity to change it. This means that Scotland as a member state would have to agree before handing over any more powers to Brussels. There is absolutely no way that the EU could get rid of Holyrood.
Using the Pound Sterling is obligatory. In theory, Scotland would be required to adopt the Euro, but in practice it would be easy not to fulfil the criteria and thus stay out indefinitely, like Poland and Sweden.
It would be politically difficult for Westminster to refuse a new Scottish independence referendum, but they would be entitled to do so. The EU allows any member state to leave using Article 50. As we’re finding out at the moment, this is not easy, but at least it’s a guaranteed right.
The UK has one single foreign policy, and Scotland is not allowed to have its own. EU member states have their own foreign policy, but they have lots of meetings to coordinate their efforts. The EU has a nascent foreign policy, too, but this is in addition to the member states’ own policies, not instead of them.
The UK hasn’t negotiated its own trade agreements for many years and will have to do this from scratch after Brexit. The EU has great trade agreements with most of the world, and these apply automatically to all member states.
Westminster raises most taxes in the UK and then sends block grants to the devolved administrations. Each member state raises its own taxes and pays a membership fee to the EU.
The military is a British institution, and it’s completely controlled by Westminster. NATO membership is very important to the UK. As an EU member state, Scotland would be responsible for its own military forces. EU countries cooperate a bit. NATO membership is not obligatory.
The Tories are talking about walking away from the European Declaration of Human Rights and the jurisdiction of the ECHR. EU countries have to sign up to the ECHR, and the European Declaration of Human Rights forms part of the EU treaties.
The UK has over the centuries invaded most countries of the World. The EU hasn’t invaded any countries at all.
The UK used to do its best to get rid of Welsh, Gaelic, Scots and the other indigenous languages of the British Isles. It seems to have been mainly European influence that has led to improved support for minority languages. Linguistic diversity is in the EU’s DNA. As a full member state, Scotland will be able to designate either Scots or Gaelic as a full working language of the EU with translation of all texts and interpretation of all speeches in the European Parliament.
All oil revenues go straight to Westminster. EU member states keep their own energy revenues, and the EU might help member states build energy infrastructure, such as pipelines between member states.
British citizenship completely replaced Scottish citizenship in 1707. EU citizenship is additional to citizenship of a member state.
Anthem: God Save the Queen. Anthem: Ode to Joy.

If I’ve forgotten anything, please leave a comment underneath, and I’ll add it.

Saying the wrong thing to the wrong people at the wrong time in the wrong way

Entrance to Oxford Union
Entrance to Oxford Union.
It's becoming abundantly clear that Theresa May and her merry Brexiteers have rather strange ideas about what the country needs to get out of Brexit (innovative biscuits, anyone?) and how to get Brussels to agree to a good deal. I've been somewhat puzzled by the reasons for this, but recently several article and comments have converged to create a clearer picture in my head. I'll be quoting several of these below.

The first piece in the jigsaw was an
article in the Financial Times by Simon Kuper, who was at Oxford with many of the current Tory politicians:

[P]olitically minded public schoolboys inhabited their own Oxford bubble. [...] Their favourite hang-out was the Oxford Union, a kind of children’s parliament that organises witty debates. [...] It’s no coincidence that the Houses of Parliament look like a massive great Gothic public school. That building is a magnet for this set. Whereas ordinary Britons learn almost no history at school except a UK-centric take on the second world war (as evidenced in the Brexit debate), the Union hacks spent their school years imbibing British parliamentary history. Their heroes were great parliamentarians such as Palmerston, Gladstone and Churchill. I don’t think most Union hacks dreamed of making policy. Rather, Westminster was simply the sort of public-school club where they felt at home [...] [When] Margaret Thatcher gave her legendary anti-European “Bruges speech”, [...] this set began obsessing about Brussels. Ruling Britain was their prerogative; they didn’t want outsiders muscling in. Tory “Euroscepticism” is in part a jobs protection scheme akin to Parisian taxi drivers opposing Uber. The public schoolboys spent decades trying to get British voters angry about the EU.

This explains amongst many other things why the Brexiteers keep going on about free trade, not realising that today businesses are more interested in not getting their just-in-time supply chains interrupted by customs officials -- they have spent too much time reliving the free trade debates of the 19th century.

An old-fashioned attitude to politics also applies to the EU. In a comment on this blog, commenter bjsalba helpfully pointed me towards this comment by Chris Kendall on the CER website:

Something I observed when seconded into Whitehall from the EU was how the Bubble (Westminster and Whitehall) does not 'get' the EU Institutions, to the point that it seems almost wilful. What do I mean by this? I mean that Whitehall -- even UKREP veterans -- deploy almost all of their resources in lobbying other members of the Council while ignoring the other institutions, the Commission and Parliament. London seems to think that building alliances with other capitals is the only way to get things done in Brussels. It almost felt like wishful thinking on their part -- "we want it to be intergovernmental so we're going to pretend that it's intergovernmental". Yes, the Council is the most powerful of the EU institutions and yes Member State positioning counts but not exclusively so. As much as Whitehall would like to pretend that Berlin and Paris will be conducting these negotiations, they won't be. London will have to deal with the Commission. And boy it is not going to be an easy ride. The Commission are very used to tough negotiating on behalf of EU citizens and EU Member States.

This is really shocking, but it explains why David Cameron approached his renegotiation in entirely the wrong way by talking almost exclusively to the other heads of state.

Bjsalba then followed up with this insightful comment:

It seems to me that the UK reluctantly left the era of Gunboat Diplomacy for the era of lobbying other governments behind closed doors where I would suspect double-dealing, bullying and bribery are the order of the day. I don’t think that works too well in Brussels, and the old methods would be seen as what they are, a means the UK getting its way by divide and conquer tactics.

The British Government does not understand how to operate in an organization that works by co-operation. I would suggest that they are “not genetically programmed” to do so. That they are now plan to send round the Royals does indeed smack of desperation.

I think this ties in with the first article I quoted above. The Brexiteer Tories spent their school days studying Westminster debates of the 19th century, so of course they want to revert to the foreign politics of that era, too.

On a similar topic, Cath Ferguson left this comment under a post on Facebook:

I think, ironically, English political leaders have the same thing in reverse with Scotland -- a kind of projection. I'm pretty sure none of the sane ones really wanted (or want) Brexit. They just want to blackmail the EU into giving them what they want with the threat of leaving. So with Scotland and the SNP, they assume Salmond, Sturgeon et al are doing the same thing, ie they don't really want independence, just to force more concessions out of the UK. They view both as games of poker where you "don't show your hand" to the EU, and "don't back down" with the Jocks -- just tell them what's what. There's a real and horrible danger for England there that they end up out the EU on their own because they've mis-read both situations and assumed everyone plays daft political games the way Westminster does.

So basically, they don't just have strange and old-fashioned ideas about how politics should be done, but they assume everybody is the same.

Their lack of cultural awareness was explained well on BBC Radio 4 (transcription from Facebook):

[In Germany] when somebody offers you something to eat, and you want it, you say “Yes”, not “No.” These well-brought up [British exchange student] ladies would usually say, “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly eat a biscuit” the first time around and wait to be persuaded before giving in with a genteel, “Oh, go on then.” In Germany, [their teacher explained], “No" actually means “No." You won't be offered that biscuit again.

Last year, David Cameron tried to persuade German chancellor Angela Merkel to let the UK have a special deal to opt out of free movement of people while staying in the single market. She said “No”, and she meant, well, “No."

Not “No, but okay if you push hard enough maybe yes”, just “No.”

When she said this again before the referendum vote, she meant “No.”

And last week to Theresa May in Brussels, the answer was “No.” She’s not quite sure how to make this any clearer.

But in the UK, poiticians and journalists are asking the question, “What does Merkel really think?” The chatter in Westminster is all about how Britain can persuade Germany to give it the best bits of the single market and amidst all the talk of red lines and not revealing your hand, there is continuous speculation about how to interpret the signals coming out of Berlin.

In fact, this is all quite simple. Merkel means what she says, and German politicians are getting increasingly frustrated by London not seeming to understand this.

Interestingly, several people pointed out on Facebook that this is perhaps only a problem for the southern English middle classes -- a Scot doesn't typically have any issues with understanding what the continental politicians are saying.

It's very worrying, though, because it means the Brexiteers will waste everybody's time in the negotiations.

In short, they'll speak to the wrong people, in the wrong way, asking for the wrong things, and they won't understand the reply. Wow.

The United Kingdom must be competent, or it is nothing

Crew of the HRESS Nevergonnagetbuilt
Crew of the HRESS Nevergonnagetbuilt.
I grew up in Denmark with the impression that the UK had great politicians and civil servants. Very old-fashioned and conservative ones, yes, but very well-educated and competent.

Having lived here since 2002, I would now perhaps revise my earlier impression and add that they were often bastards, but at least they were competent bastards.

To a large extent, that explains why Scotland for so long was reasonably content to be governed by Westminster. The decisions they made on Scotland's behalf might have been reactionary and horrible, but at least they were made by competent people and presented elegantly.

However, ever since the morning of Brexit, the UK has been the laughing stock of the world. Scotland is now universally regarded as having better, nicer, cleverer and more competent politicians that the rUK.

This must be the final nail in the coffin of the UK. The United Kingdom must be competent, or it is nothing.

The fiscal trap

sometimes it's worth
sometimes it's worth.
Lots of people have been writing about how the new powers for Holyrood effectively constitute a fiscal trap. As Alistair Davidson said:

The Scotland Bill is terrible. We are being given the power to top-up existing benefits, but not control of the benefits system. That means we don't save money by getting people into work, and we can't change the system to make it more humane or more efficient. Top up benefits will be expensive or in some cases impossible to administer.

Oh and taxes - we are getting more power to vary taxes, but not power to define them. Rich people can choose to take their income through shares or capital gains, taxes not devolved, so we can tax the middle class more but we can't tax the rich. And the Tories will still be cutting the Scottish block grant every year. A well-constructed trap, all round.

In the old days -- before the advent of austerity -- being able to vary a variety of taxes and benefits might have been moderately useful. However, I'm starting to think it's going to be an even bigger disaster than people realise because the powers are insufficient to maintain a welfare state in Scotland if the Tories abolish it in England.

Imagine the Tories decided to cut public spending drastically, for instance by getting rid of tax credits altogether, and to use the money saved on something that didn't affect Scotland directly, for instance on lowering property taxes in England. Because tax credits aren't devolved, Scotland wouldn't get anything out of abolishing them (the block grant is based on English spending in devolved areas, so this wouldn't change anything), and property taxation is devolved, so Scotland would to some extent be expected to mirror this move. A majority of Scots might want to introduce Scottish tax credits to keep things unchanged up here, but there wouldn't be any money to pay for it. To make things worse, if Scotland decided to reduce property taxes here, too, that would cost even more money. As a result, Scotland would be facing two new expenses and no new income. It'd be an absolute nightmare.

Of course Scottish Labour are making things even worse by pretending the new powers are sufficient to allow Scotland to maintain the welfare state. And why shouldn't they? After all, they have practically no chance of getting into power in Scotland any time soon, so it's all just a game to them now.

I just don't understand why the Scottish Government isn't doing more to show that it's all a trap. I guess the hope is that people will suddenly realise what the problem is in a few years' time, and hopefully they'll then turn to independence. I just fear that a lot of the welfare state will be irrevocably damaged before the scales finally fall from the voters' eyes.

What EVEL have the Tories done?

Evil Pumpkins
Evil Pumpkins.
I'm completely in agreement with the idea that English affairs should be determined by parliamentarians elected in England. Why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on laws relating to education or health in England, when these areas are fully devolved to Scotland? However, the way to achieve this would be to create an English Parliament and an English Government separate from the UK institutions, not the EVEL plan that the Tories have put in place.

As Lallands Peat Worrier has argued, EVEL really doesn't implement English Votes for English Laws but English Vetoes against but not for English Laws. This sounds rather innocent, but EVEL has evil consequences for all MPs representing non-English seats and any parties that rely on them.

The purpose is to give the Tories a perpetual veto at Westminster. The consequences might be minor during this parliament. However, as Iain Macwhirter has pointed out, EVEL will suddenly become important once a (possibly Labour-led) government relies on non-English MPs to pass its legislation: "It would leave UK Labour ministers for health, education and justice unable to implement the policies on which the government was elected. How could any prime minister pretend to govern when he or she can’t implement their manifesto pledges over 85 per cent of the UK population?"

A useful way to think about it might be so say that we currently have Tory governments in both England and the UK so there are no conflicts; however, if after 2020 we have a Tory government in England but any other government in the UK, EVEL will suddenly spring into action. (Holyrood politics was also a bit boring while Labour was in charge both there and in the UK and only really got interesting after the SNP got into government.)

It is now unrealistic for MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to reach the top. Positions such as Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretaries of State for Health and Education and the Home Secretary will now require the holder to represent an English seat, as pointed out by Wings over Scotland. The problem is that most politicians move up through government by advancing to a more important post from time to time, so it becomes almost impossible to create a reasonable career path if you are restricted to military and foreign affairs.

It might also shut non-English MPs out of a lot of the committees (where a lot of the real law-making happens) -- see for instance this story about Tommy Sheppard's seat in the fracking regulations committee. This is all a bit odd because English MPs don't seem to have been removed from the Scottish Affairs Committee, which has plenty of members not representing Scottish seats.

Of course, there's also the worry that EVEL will be extended in the future. Currently it's just implemented through a Commons standing order, which a future government can easily change. It'll be interesting to see whether the current government after a couple of years tries to make it much harder to change by putting it into law once the dust has settled.

It will also be interesting whether the Tories will try to lump together legislation to make it impossible for Scots to block. For instance, English fox hunting legislation is now subject to an English veto, but Scots can still take part in blocking it in the final stage if it's a close vote (i.e., if a lot of Tories rebel). Might the Tories add a Scottish sweetener to the bill to make it unattractive for Scottish MPs to do this?

It's also worth bearing in mind that EVEL isn't a symmetrical response to Scottish devolution. The way to determine whether something is devolved to Holyrood isn't to ask whether it only affects Scotland but to check a long list of reserved matters. For instance, broadcasting is reserved to Westminster, so Holyrood cannot simply create a new Scottish TV channel; on the other hand agriculture is reserved, so Westminster cannot pass a UK-wide law in this area without Holyrood's consent. It would have been straight-forward enough to attach a similar list of reserved matters to the EVEL standing order (which is surely what they would have done if they had set up an English Parliament), but instead it's been left to the discretion of the Speaker.

It's hard not to get the impression that the Tories have made the first version of EVEL deliberately vague so that nobody gets too bothered about it yet, and by the time people really realise what it was all about, it will already have been part of the UK's uncodified constitution for years. That's EVEL.

Home rule if we let the dream die

Driving into Scotland after 2014
Driving into Scotland after 2014.

Alun Evans, the former director of the Scotland Office, has used the upcoming anniversary of the referendum to issue a call for home rule:

The time has come for the United Kingdom to make a big, bold, generous and mature offer to the people of Scotland. That offer needs to be – whatever people choose to call it, full fiscal autonomy or devo max plus – “home rule within the United Kingdom”, to use the language of Charles Parnell and William Gladstone.

What would that look like? It could be: full devolution of tax and spending to the Scottish parliament and government, except for reserved areas; full responsibility for domestic policy and spending; full responsibility for energy policy and activity on and offshore; agreement on certain shared responsibilities within the UK; a framework of the continuance of the UK as a constitutional monarchy; a shared economic area with monetary policy set by the UK central bank’s monetary policy committee on which Scotland’s views should be represented; defence and the overall conduct of foreign policy to be run by the UK but with full consultation.

Well, that's cool -- exactly what the SNP has asked for every day since the No vote. However, Mr. Evans has three conditions:

But there would need to be three broad conditions. First: economic. This arrangement would, by definition, spell the end of the Barnett formula for public spending as it is applied to Scotland – needing a new and fairer formula to apply to Wales and Northern Ireland.

That's fine, so long as the price agreed for shared UK services (such as the military) is fair.

Second: political. Giving a far greater degree of independence within the UK to Scotland – home rule – should have a quid pro quo in terms of reduced political power for Scotland within the Westminster parliament. The best, and fairest, answer to the West Lothian question is that home rule should coincide with a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs in return for home rule. That would imply a cut of perhaps 50% in the number of Scottish MPs.

That, on the other hand, is ridiculous. I'd be very happy for Westminster to split into two parliaments -- an English one and a federal one -- and of course Scotland should only have seats in the latter. However, in the federal parliament Scotland should count for more, not less. As I've argued before, the Penrose formula should be used, which would give Scotland roughly 1/6 of the seats in the UK Parliament, rather than the 1/20 that Alun Evans seems to be advocating. Otherwise Scotland simply wouldn't have as much influence on the international stage as it would as an independent country.

Third: constitutional. This issue has to be put to bed for a generation, not for a year or for five years. There may be something to be learned from the experience of Canada with Quebec. After its second referendum in 1995 – when the separatist movement failed to gain independence by only 1% – the government reached out to Quebec and sold the benefits of remaining within Canada much more strongly and passionately, to the extent that the pressure for separatism has subsided.

Those who believe in Scotland remaining a part of the UK now need to do the same to ensure that agreement on home rule is not immediately unpicked. And so a long-term agreement must stipulate that it is for the long term – even if that needs to be enshrined in a new treaty of union.

It might be a good idea for the SNP to agree to a decade-long referendum moratorium in return for home rule, but I don't like the sound of Mr. Evans's last sentence at all. It sounds a lot like he would make it illegal to call another referendum, and that simply wouldn't be acceptable. Some people might have swallowed this on 19th September last year when everything was dreich and thrawn, but now that most people feel that another referendum is just a few years away, I don't see why anybody would accept these terms and conditions.

Home rule is fine, but only if it's a stepping-stone towards full independence for Scotland.

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.