All posts by thomas

Minimum pricing: Will it lead to booze trips or dope?

booze photo
Photo by Twofish
I am not a huge fan of minimum pricing of alcohol. The money raised ought to go the government, not to the supermarkets, and I cannot see how it can work in an era of Internet shopping. However, it is clearly the only option the Scottish Government has, given that alcohol duties are reserved to Westminster.

It will be interesting to see how the shops will implement minimum pricing. Let us imagine a shop that used to sell five brands of vodka (A: own brand at £11, B: cheap brand at £13, C: normal brand at £15, D: quality at £18, and E: premium at £25). Minimum pricing now stipulates that the minimum price for these products is £15.

The shop basically has three choices:

  1. It might sell all their cheapest products at the same price and leave all others unchanged: A: £15, B: £15, C: £15, D: £18, E: £25. This won’t happen – nobody would buy A or B.
  2. It might stop selling their cheapest products: C: £15, D: £18, E: £25. This is a possibility, especially in chains that want to keep their prices the same in Scotland and England. It will cost the shops a bit of money – their profit margins will remain the same on all products, but people will buy less.
  3. It might increase the prices of everything, e.g., A: £15, B: £16, C: £18, D: £20, E: £26. This will be great for shops – because they keep the money generated by minimum pricing, this will basically boost their profits dramatically, even if people are buying less. Because of this, I think this is the most likely outcome.

Whether minimum pricing will affect people’s behaviour really depends on how the shops implement it. If they go for the second scenario, I don’t think it will affect average consumers a lot, but in the third one, it suddenly becomes very attractive to buy everything in England. Lots of people might start using Internet shopping for alcohol (I don’t presume the Scottish Government can force an English retailer to apply Scottish legislation on alcohol), and people will start bringing back booze every time they go to England.

The savings probably won’t be big enough to make booze trips to England very popular, but it will at least pay for the petrol if you decide to go on a daytrip to Carlisle.

None of this is likely to affect underage drinkers. They will have to pay more for their booze, so the big question is whether this makes more of them opt for cannabis, given that it now will be significantly cheaper (and tends to be readily available in secondary schools).

It is all rather complicated, and it will be interesting to see whether it works in practice. I tend to believe that it won’t survive Scottish independence, however: Once the Scottish Government is able to set its own alcohol duties, that will be a much better option.

Independence movements and Realpolitik

diplomacy game photo
Photo by condredge
The current independence projects don’t seem to be going too well: The Kurds are losing huge areas to the Iraqi forces (apparently supported by the Iranians, who really don’t want their Kurds to get an appetite for independence); the Catalans are likely to resume their independence declaration within the next couple of days, at which point the Spanish Government have said they’ll suspend devolution (and no doubt send in the Guardia Civil to enact this decree); and in Scotland a lot of independence supporters seem to have no idea how to campaign for independence without formal agreement from Westminster.

What seems to be common to the three groups is that people have been too idealistic. It’s like the Kurds expected international support for independence because they had done such a good job fighting ISIS; the Catalans thought the EU would stand up for them because they’re EU citizens; and in Scotland we thought Westminster would always do what we asked them (rather than realising that Cameron only agreed because he was cocky enough to think he’d win big time no matter what).

It’s perhaps time to adopt a more realpolitisch approach to independence. Ideals and principles are good, but in politics you should always ask yourself what’s in it for your opponent. So what benefit would a country get from supporting the Kurds? What would an EU country gain from supporting Catalonia and annoying Spain? Why exactly would Theresa May feel strengthened if she supported a new independence referendum?

(I can recommend playing the board game Diplomacy to learn these skills, by the way. Reading Machiavelli and Sun Tzu is also good, but Diplomacy is more fun.)

In particular, it seems like lots of independence supporters in Scotland (and, I think, in Catalonia) had built up completely unrealistic ideas about the EU. Here is a more realpolitisch view:

The EU is rule-based.
This means that the EU was quite relaxed about Scottish independence when it looked like it would happen with the explicit approval of the UK, but they really don’t like the idea of a UDI.
The EU is a club of member states.
This means that they try to keep current members (such as Spain) happy, but they care less about prospective members (such as Catalonia). It also explains why the UK is already getting ignored in many cases in spite of Brexit not having happened yet, because of course leaving members carry less weight than those who’re committed to the club.
The EU is consensus-based.
Because it’s a club, it likes to operate by consensus. The EU will generally bide its time until the member states have found a compromise everybody can live with.
The EU operates slowly.
Doing things by consensus takes time. Because of this, the EU often reacts very slowly when things happen. There’s thus no way they would try to suspend Spain immediately, almost no matter how badly they treated Catalonia. They would do a lot of talking behind the scenes, and sanctions would only get imposed after a long delay, and probably only as a last resort. Don’t forget how long it’s taken the EU to do anything about the democratic problems in Hungary and Poland.
The EU is most effective behind the scenes.
The EU likes to operate quietly without generating big headlines. For instance, Christian Allard pointed out on Twitter that on the day of the Catalan referendum, the Guardia Civil for some strange reason didn’t return in the evening when the votes were getting counted, although everybody expected them. It’s a good guess the EU put a lot of pressure on Rajoy to stop the violence.
The EU has never been keen on independence movements.
Several of the founding members of the EU had “problems” with independence movements, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they designed the rules in a way that wouldn’t encourage them.
The EU is not the Council of Europe, and the European Court of Justice is not the European Court of Human Rights.
Whereas the CoE’s ECHR produces human rights rulings all the time,
it’s not really the typical kind of topic of the EU’s ECJ, even though human rights are now part of the EU treaties, so we shouldn’t expect them to clamp down on Spain on this basis quickly.
The EU only fights for EU citizens outwith their own country.
If the UK discriminates against a Danish citizen like me, the EU will step in immediately – but they won’t lift a finger if it happens to UK citizens.
Because of this, it’s easier for people from the rest of the EU to bring a foreign spouse to the UK than it is for UK citizens. This is also the reason why Scotland is allowed to charge tuition fees for English students at Scottish universities, but not for Danish or Polish ones. It’s therefore not very effective at all for Catalans to shout that they’re EU citizens being treated badly – so long as they’re Spanish citizens getting treated badly in Spain, the EU won’t interfere.
The EU does Realpolitik.
So they weren’t keen on Scottish independence when the UK looked like they were going to remain, but when the UK voted Leave, the EU could suddenly see the point in supporting us (because it would have weakened the UK during the negotiations). And now that Scotland wants to wait till after the dust has settled, the EU has become less supportive again.
* * *

I don’t understand the people who dislike the EU but love EFTA, by the way. For all practical purposes, these days EFTA is an outer circle of the EU – it’s EU membership without the influence. If you’re a member of EFTA, you’ll end up following most EU rules, but you won’t have had a seat at the table when those rules are created.

Norway is only an EFTA member because the country voted No to EEC/EU membership twice, and EFTA/EEA was the best the politicians could achieve without breaking the terms of the referendums. It’s certainly not because the Norwegian politicians thought it would be better than full EU membership.

If a country is a member of the EU, they can try to change the bits they don’t like. They can for instance try to change the EU’s position of Catalan independence. A country that is a member of EFTA will not be able to change the EU’s view on anything, but will still have to live with the consequences.

EFTA membership might be a necessary evil for some countries, but it’s certainly not anything to strive for as a permanent solution in my book.

To return to Realpolitik, one country that has definitely understood it is Russia. They’re being extremely cynical about manipulating democratic processes in the West, especially through social media. Interestingly, they don’t really seem to be working for specific democratic outcomes, but rather building up existing conflicts. So they didn’t invent Brexit or the American Far Right, but they strengthened them, thinking that a weakened EU (in the case of Brexit) or an angry USA (in the case of Trump) will play into Russia’s hands.

For the same reason, there are signs the Russians are supporting Catalonia – not because they actually care about the Catalan people, but because they think they can use it to weaken the EU. (Just for the record, I am in favour of the right to self-determination for the Catalan people, but if that means independence, I want it to happen without wrecking the EU in the process.)

As I’ve said often before, I don’t think Scottish independence makes much sense if we revert to a world dominated by great powers (like Europe in the 19th century). Organisations such as the EU and NATO make it possible to be a successful small country, so we should take care not to destroy them.

From the perspective of Realpolitik, Scotland (and Catalonia) should work hard to change the EU from the inside to make it more open to internal independence movements. What we should not do is to help Russia bring down the EU, even if it makes independence slightly easier to achieve in the short term.

After all, the independent Scotland most of us want to see is an open and prosperous country, and that is much more likely inside a strong European Union.

Brexit: Choosing between the plague and cholera

plague photo
Photo by _-ellie-_
“To choose between the plague and cholera” (“at vælge mellem pest og kolera”) is a Danish idiom, which basically expresses the situation of having to choose between two evils.

This is basically what Brexit means for Westminster politicians: The choice is between cancelling Brexit or implementing it but suffering as a consequence. Unfortunately, the English public has been led to believe that Brexit will have positive consequences, and as a result, neither option is very attractive for a politician seeking reelection after Brexit.

Unfortunately, humans find it hard to make a choice between two unpalatable options. Most people will effectively be paralysed, hoping that a third option will appear out of nowhere. And that’s exactly what is happening at Westminster at the moment. If they cancel Brexit, the voters will punish them. If they go for a Norwegian solution, inflicting only minor damage on the economy, the voters that expected a Brexit bonus will penalise them, too. And if they negotiate a hard (but orderly) Brexit, the consequent financial shock will make the electoral punishment even harder.

And so, the Westminster politicians are caught in the Brexit headlights, hoping against hope that the EU will save them by presenting an option that will give them extra money and still be called Brexit. However, as the EU negotiators have already said, they don’t see it as their task to save the Conservative party.

The result of the Brexit paralysis will be that hardly anything will have been negotiated when the Article 50 deadline is up on the 29th of March, 2019. Nobody will see any benefit in extending the deadline (because the British side will remain completely paralysed), and so the UK will crash out without a transition period or a trade deal, and even without a WTO schedule.

It will be an utter disaster, and the electorate will punish the hapless paralysed politicians even harder than they would have done if they had chosen one of the options. It’ll serve them right.

We also have to realise that time is running out for choosing one of the options, so if the situation is still unresolved by Hogmanay, I’m afraid we’ll all have to assume that we’ll end up with the hard, chaotic Brexit that almost everybody agrees will be an unmitigated clusterfuck.

What will Scotland do then? If the Scottish politicians after Brexit are seen to have taken part in the collective paralysis of the British political classes, they too will get punished. The Scottish voters expect Holyrood to stand up for them, so if Holyrood has allowed a chaotic Brexit to happen without doing anything, they’ll be as guilty as Westminster.

The infuriating – but necessary – European Union

Leonese independence fighter photo
Photo by viralbus
The EU is not like the US, where the President and the federal administration are extremely powerful. The European Commission in general tends to express the consensus amongst the member states, and when they don’t agree, they don’t say very much.

So while I would have preferred Juncker to have condemned the police violence we saw two days ago in Catalonia in much stronger terms, it is ultimately simply a reflection on the fact that most of the member states have said very little, and they haven’t given him the mandate to do anything else.

The real question is therefore why the heads of government – Merkel, Macron and all the others – have been so quiet, because that’s the ultimate reason why the EU hasn’t said much.

It also shows that Scotland’s voice is missing inside the EU. If Scotland had voted Yes back in 2014, Juncker would have had to take the views of Scotland into account too while trying to work out a consensus position.

The thing is that so long as the EU exists, it is preferable to be on the inside trying to push it in the right direction, rather than being on the outside, criticising its every move.

It’s a bit of a paradox that the EU doesn’t know how to handle Catalonian independence when it’s the rise of the EU that has made it more attractive to be a small country. Before the advent of the EU, NATO, the UN and similar organisations, small countries always got bullied and pushed aside (or even invaded) by big countries, and it was in certain regards preferable to be part of a bigger country. For instance, Scotland arguably did much better during the 19th century than Denmark (which suffered the destruction of its capital and subsequently lost Norway and Schleswig-Holstein).

There is a certain logic to the standpoint of UKIP, namely to oppose Scottish independence and to attempt to return to the days when countries were big, powerful and unconstrained by international organisations. What I don’t get is how people can be in favour of Scottish independence and against the EU per se (as opposed to wanting to reform it), because if the international organisations disappear, an independent Scotland will suffer.

There is no denying, however, that Catalonia now finds itself in a difficult position. They need to be part of the Internal Market to do well, so they need an internationally recognised path to independence. At the same time, it’s clear that Spain won’t negotiate at all. As far as I’m aware, becoming part of the Internal Market through EFTA will also require the accept of all current EEA members, including Spain, so that won’t solve the problem, either.

I hope the leaders of the other EU countries have told señor Rajoy in no uncertain terms that their continued support is dependent on non-violent solutions going forward. If they haven’t, I expect the police violence will escalate if Catalonia as expected declares independence soon (probably tomorrow).

I also hope that the Catalonian precedent hasn’t made Westminster conclude that they can just tell Scotland that “now is not the time for a referendum” forever more. As I’ve said before, I would like to know what Nicola Sturgeon is planning to do if Theresa May never agrees to call another referendum.

In the meantime, we all need to get better at explaining to people in other countries why they should be more supportive of European independence movements, and why suppressing them with force is a very bad idea. Neither Scotland nor Catalonia can ultimately become successful independent countries without some degree of international support. That includes working on improving the European Union – it can be very infuriating, but it’s more necessary than ever.

I stand with Catalonia

estelada photo
Photo by serguei_2k
Catalonia will hold its independence referendum on Sunday. It’s currently uncertain exactly how it will happen, but it seems clear that the Catalan government has prepared for all eventualities, so I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t go ahead in some form or other.

The referendum is illegal according to the Spanish constitution, so Spain is entirely entitled to ignore the result. Confiscating ballot boxes, raiding printing offices and prosecuting people is not a pretty sight in a democracy, however.

The European Union now has a problem similar to the ones it is facing in Hungary and Poland, namely that these member states aren’t living up to the democratic ideals of the Union. It has taken the EU a long time to start being tough on Hungary and Poland, so it’s no surprise that the speed the Catalan situation is developing at has left a lot of people in Brussels and in the capitals of the member states unprepared and struggling to find a good answer. However, the Spanish state is clamping down on a democratic process in a way that cannot be ignored for long.

My best guess is that Spain will manage to prevent the referendum from going ahead in many places (but by no means all of them), and that the results from the ones that do manage to stay open will be close to 100% Sí. I therefore expect the Catalan Government to declare independence within the next week.

It’s clear that Spain won’t recognise this independence declaration, and neither will any of the EU member states at first. I guess Russia might recognise it, and perhaps a few of the countries that Spain has refused to recognise over the years, such as Kosova.

What will Spain do then? Will they pretend nothing has happened (apart from trying to arrest a lot of Catalan independentistas)? If so, they cannot close the borders or stop the block grants. Or will they treat Catalonia as an rogue independent country, shutting the borders and freezing Catalan assets in Spain? Or will they do something in between?

Many observers seem to think the Catalan government will back down if they’re offered a few more powers. I don’t think so. It’s my impression that they have been immensely frustrated by the Spanish refusal to discuss independence in the past, and they’re now going to go ahead, no matter how difficult it turns out to be.

The EU – as well as all European countries and individuals – will therefore need to work out what to do if the situation doesn’t resolve itself. Telling the Catalans to get back into their box is unlikely to work, and it could create a lot of bad blood.

Personally I don’t think a democratic state should be able to declare that any question lies beyond the reach of democracy. If a controversial goal such as independence cannot be achieved democratically, frustrated individuals will eventually start using violence to achieve it. If Spain won’t accept a Catalan independence referendum, they need to specify another realistic way for the Catalans to achieve it – telling them that the constitution doesn’t allow it and that there’s nothing they can do about it simply isn’t good enough.

Finally, we need to talk about Russia. There are signs that they’re supporting the Catalans behind the scenes, just like they supported Trump, Brexit, AfD and Front National recently. (The Scottish independence referendum probably happened a bit too early, or the Russian influence would have been felt strongly here, too.) I’m sensing that some people are thus concluding that Catalan independence must be a bad thing, too.

However, what’s happening seems to be that the Russians are supporting anything that upsets the status quo – they’re clearly assuming that any sort of instability in the West will benefit Russia.

It’s therefore wrong to infer anything about the merits of Catalan independence on the basis of Russian support, apart from the obvious fact that it will be disruptive to a large EU country.

We have to make up our own minds about the political questions that face us. Simply taking the opposite position to Russia would be facile and potentially wrong.

In this case, I believe the Catalans must be allowed to decide their own future, and if they collectively decide they want to go for independence in Europe, we should all support them. What Spain currently is doing is a democratic outrage.

If you see disaster coming, it’s your duty to avert it

titanic photo
Photo by knolleary
Pete Wishart has written an article in The National today, which rather puzzled me. In it he writes this:

Brexit will be an absolute disaster for Scotland, cutting average pay by £2000 and resulting in the loss of 80 000 jobs. […]

With transitional arrangements in place, it is likely that the full impact of Brexit will start to become apparent just as we start to contest the 2021 election. We therefore have to seek a renewed mandate in 2021 and have the courage of our convictions to fight the next Scottish election on securing a renewed referendum mandate.

This is barking mad! If Pete Wishart thought there was a decent chance Brexit might be a success, I could understand why he might want to wait a bit, but if he’s convinced (as am I) that it will be “an absolute disaster”, why wait?

Have politicians lost their ability to change people’s minds? Is there a rule that they have to follow opinion polls slavishly without trying to influence hearts and minds?

If you can see that the Titanic is going to collide with an iceberg and sink, your duty is to either change course or launch a lifeboat. It’s not to congratulate yourself that lots of people will flock to your lifeboat once the ship is sinking fast.

I realise that a lot of SNP people got a nasty shock in June, when the party did much worse than anybody had expected. However, what happened wasn’t a rejection of independence – it was a sign that many independentistas are getting fed up with the SNP, as happens with all parties that have been in power for a while. I find it very unlikely that Scottish voters will vote for the SNP in bigger numbers in 2021 and 2022 if the economy is falling apart under an SNP government (but ultimately due to Brexit and Tory austerity).

We already have two separate mandates for independence. It’s true that it’s hard to force Westminster’s hand when Yes is still hovering around the 45% mark in the opinion polls, but surely what we should be doing in those circumstances is to campaign for independence now in order to shift public opinion.

I have for a long time argued that we need a new independence referendum no later than the autumn of 2018, in order to get out before Brexit happens. However, if the UK gets a two-year transition deal, as asked for by Theresa May (and whether this gets accepted by the EU is by no means certain yet), I guess we can perhaps wait till September 2020, if we’re happy to negotiate independence within six months. If we want 18 months to put everything in place (which is what Alex Salmond’s plan was last time), we need to hold ScotRef no later than September 2019.

That is entirely doable. The EU will not implement a transitional arrangement unless they know where the UK is heading, so by March 2019 it should be be clear what Brexit means, and that then allows for a six-month campaign before a September 2019 referendum.

Much as I can see the rationale for this, I still personally think it is too late. As I’ve said many times before, a lot of people and companies will start moving to the continent in 2018, and they won’t come back no matter what. And new companies trying to make money out of Brexit (for instance by selling substitutes for EU products that suddenly get too expensive) will not place themselves in Scotland if there’s any possibility that Scotland will leave the UK soon afterwards, so Scotland is likely to end up in a nightmare scenario, losing people and companies but not gaining any, basically because we’ve been staring into the headlights for too long.

Also, the longer we wait, the more likely it becomes that the English Remainers will finally get their act together and cancel Brexit. That would be great in many ways, but it will kick Scottish independence into the seriously long grass. It certainly won’t benefit the SNP.

If I was being evil, I would say that Pete Wishart’s idea of a referendum during the 2021–26 parliament is based on the idea that asking for a mandate for independence might be the SNP’s only chance to win that election. However, if that’s the thinking behind it, it’s for the sole benefit of the SNP and to the detriment of the independence movement and of the people of Scotland.

Why we’re in a hurry

mauerfall photo
Photo by Gertrud K.
History seems to develop in sudden bursts (the punctuated equilibrium theory) – nothing happens for decades, and suddenly everything changes at once. For instance, the map of Europe changed very little between 1949 and 1990, and then a lot of borders changed in the space of three years. After that, things went fairly quiet again.

The financial crash, austerity, rising inequality and other factors are now turning the world unsteady once more, and there is a potential for quite a few changes to the map of Europe. (We’ve already seen Crimea and parts of Georgia getting occupied by Russia, and Catalonia might be independent in a month’s time.) However, at some point in the near future, this window of uncertainty will close again, and the status quo will reign supreme again for a long time.

It was probably the financial crash that in 2014 convinced a lot of people in Scotland that independence was a better option than remaining within the UK, and Brexit is now a great opportunity to make even more people come on board. This doesn’t happen on its own, of course – somebody needs to explain to former Unionists why Brexit means that Scotland is a safer way forward.

However, at some point Brexit will get resolved, and things will stabilise again – the companies and people that couldn’t accept it will have left, and the rest will have found a new to live. Even if the new status quo is clearly worse than the old one, people’s livelihoods will depend on the new state of affairs, and they will not want to rock the boat. At that point it will again get much harder to interest people in independence.

For instance, if the UK has left the Internal Market and the EU’s customs union and instead entered an association agreement with the US, leaving the UK and rejoining the EU (or Efta) will seem like an enormous change, a step too far for the vast majority of people whose jobs depend on trade with the USA, even if they vaguely remember that the jobs they had before Brexit were better.

Furthermore, it doesn’t seem at all certain that there will be a pro-independence majority at Holyrood after 2021, and that could make it impossible to call a new referendum, even if the opinion polls at that time find a majority of Scots in favour of independence.

This means that if ScotRef hasn’t happened by 2021, the window of uncertainty is likely to have closed by the time pro-independence parties gain a majority again, and then the ball will have been kicked into the seriously long grass.

However, this doesn’t mean that waiting till 2021 is a good idea at all. In fact, I’m getting increasingly worried that time is already running out, and I’m getting increasingly frustrated with the Scottish Government – they seem to be focusing mainly on getting the best possible Brexit deal from the UK, instead of spending their time campaigning for independence. I’m not saying anybody should really be talking about a referendum at this stage – there’s a lot of referendum fatigue in Scotland – but if nobody explains why Scotland will be better off as part of the EU than as part of the UK, former No voters won’t change their mind.

The thing is that people and companies are moving. I’m aware that relatively few people have left yet, but that’s because it takes time to make such a big change.

To take my own family as an example: My wife holds UK citizenship, and nothing else. Moving to the rest of the EU will thus be much harder for her after March 2019, so if we move, it’ll need to happen sooner than that. We have kids in both primary and secondary school, and making such as fundamental change during a school year isn’t a great idea. The best time to move is thus the summer of 2018. It’ll take us at least six months to plan such a move – we’ll need to find new jobs, sell the house and many other things – so we’ll need to make our decision by Christmas this year. This doesn’t mean that Scotland will need have to have left by then, but if it’s still looking like the UK might be going for a hard (or even a cliff-edge) Brexit, and if there’s no concrete plan for Scotland to be doing anything about it, we’ll have to execute Operation Flit.

I imagine that many other people and companies are working to similar time scales. What’s important here is that once the house has been put on the market and new job contracts signed, it’ll get very hard to reverse the decision, even if ScotRef suddenly gets announced next summer.

There is a mandate for independence both in Holyrood and in Westminster (counting only the Scottish seats). We need to act while Scottish independence can act as a solution to Brexit, not as yet a further upheaval once things have finally calmed down. And we need to signal what the plan is before lots of people and companies have relocated themselves permanently to the rest of the EU.

We’re in a hurry.