All posts by thomas

The Constitution of Scotland

When Scotland becomes independent, it would be a wasted opportunity if the new (or rather, reborn) country didn’t get a written constitution — the UK’s unwritten one has always struck me as a bizarre contraption.

I’m by no means the first person to have had this thought — see amongst others Better Nation and the Constitutional Convention, as well as the SNP’s ten-years-old proposed constitution (PDF). There are also some plans about crowd-sourcing a Scottish Constitution, which I might write more about another day.

Without going into the details of what it should and shouldn’t say, I have a few ideas about the length and scope:

  • It shouldn’t be too long. If it is (like for instance the doomed Constitution for Europe), it will be too specific, which means that it will need revising all the time, and by doing so, it loses its constitutional nature.
  • It shouldn’t be too specific. Apart from the problem with continuous revisions if it is, it also creates problems if external factors require a constitutional change that there might not be a political will to implement.
  • It shouldn’t be too hard to change. If it is, it will start to be reinterpreted, with the result that nobody really understands what it means. For instance, the Danish Constitution is almost impossible to change (it was last changed in 1953), and when it mentions the king, it means either the queen, the prime minister or the government, depending on the context, which isn’t ideal.
  • It should be easy to understand. Although many laws are by nature highly complex, the constitution should be a straightforward text that school children could learn and discuss at school.
  • It should make us proud. Like the Declaration of Arbroath and other such documents through the ages, a good constitution should be an inspiring document that will inspire its readers centuries for now.

If all of this seems a bit daunting, at least there are plenty of existing constitutional documents from all over the world than can be used as a basis, so it should be doable.

A reply to Patrick Harvie

Patrick Harvie (Green Party)
Originally uploaded by alf.melin

According to The Scotsman, Patrick Harvie (Green MSP) has a problem with the SNP’s attempts to woo centrist voters:

However, Mr Harvie fears the efforts to woo centre-ground voters could alienate many on the Left.

“The task of those who see the opportunity of independence is to inspire hope that a Yes vote will lead to the radical change we consider necessary and desirable,” he said in his submission to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the 2014 vote.

“The current ‘universalist’ approach risks turning what should be a transformational opportunity into a promise of middle-of-the-road blandness, only under a different flag. “I can’t ask people to vote for that. This debate needs to offer more.”

I can totally relate to this, but I also think it’s misplaced.

The real reason to support independence is to allow us to make our own decisions in Scotland. However, we can’t make those decisions in advance — that would be counting our chickens before they hatch.

Once independence has been achieved, I will be delighted to join Patrick Harvie and many others in the fight for ending the monarchy in Scotland, and I think there’s a good chance we’ll win that fight. However, without independence Westminster will just veto it.

Once independence has been achieved, there will be a huge argument whether Scotland should be part of NATO (like England, Norway and Denmark), or more strictly neutral (like Ireland, Sweden and Finland), and I haven’t decided yet which side I’m on. However, without independence Westminster will just keep Scotland inside NATO (and keep the atomic bombs up here for good measure).

Once independence has been achieved, we’ll have to discuss a whole range of issues that it would be futile to discuss at the moment because Westminster has the final word.

So Patrick Harvie shouldn’t ask his voters to vote for middle-of-the-road blandness à l’Écossaise; he should ask his voters to vote for an independent Scotland so that the questions that are most important to us can be decided in Scotland by the people living here, and the day after Scotland has voted Yes, he should then start changing Scotland into a better nation.

BBC’s bias

Originally uploaded by baaker2009

The SNP did really well in Thursday’s local elections, gaining 61 extra councillors (compared to 46 extra for Labour), with these gains mainly coming from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

East Renfrewshire is actually quite typical in this regard: Labour 8 (+1), SNP 4 (+1), Tories 6 (-1), LibDems 0 (-1), Independents 2 (n/c).

However, if you’ve been watching the BBC, you’d think the SNP actually had a bad election. To achieve this negative image, they’ve had to doctor the figures, so instead of comparing the number of seats with the last election — as is the norm for reporting elections — they’ve decided to to compare the number of seats with the status quo ante bellum, which helps Labour immensely because they were hit by numerous defections of councillors to the SNP over the past few years.

According to the BBC, Labour therefore gained 58 seats compared to 57 seats to the SNP, and they then turn this into a story about Labour doing significantly better than the SNP. Of course they also conveniently focus more on these figures than on the absolute numbers, which are 424 SNP councillors compared to 394 Labour ones.

To reinforce their version of events, the BBC have been focusing strongly on Glasgow (where the SNP admittedly were too ambitious and thus didn’t gain quite as many seats as hoped, increasing their number of councillors “only” from 22 to 27), and been ignoring the parts of the country where the SNP had an excellent election, such as Dundee, which now has an absolute SNP majority.

The BBC’s biased reporting is not just affecting the SNP, but also the other pro-independence party, the Scottish Greens. They increased their number of councillors from 8 to 14, but this has been more or less ignored by the BBC.

This anti-independence bias has to stop now! The BBC are supposed to be impartial, and surely that should apply in Scotland as well as in England.

The Unionists’ plans for an independent Scotland

Scottish Parliament III
Originally uploaded by Graeme Pow

The SNP are often asked to provide detailed plans for what to do after independence — which currency would Scotland use, would there be passport controls, would Scotland be a member of NATO, etc.

To a certain extent that is right and proper – the SNP is the main proponent of independence, so it reasonable to expect that this party will also be able to suggest some answers to these questions.

However, there’s a limit to it.

The day after Scotland votes Yes to independence, the unionist parties will have to stop working to prevent independence and start working to fight Scotland’s corner in the independence talks with the rUK.

Furthermore, the next elections to the Scottish Parliament are due in May 2016, roughly 18 months after the independence referendum. It is entirely possible that the SNP won’t win these elections, and it could therefore quite feasibly be a Labour politician who would be the first prime minister of an independent Scotland, and in this case it would be Labour and not the SNP that would be making many of the crucial decisions about NATO, the currency and the other crucial questions.

In short, I’d like the Unionists to acknowledge that they too need to have a vision about what an independent Scotland should look like, because they might be the ones who’ll have to implement it.

How to minimise the number of students from England after independence

At the moment, the main reason why English students are not all going to university in Scotland (where university tuition is free, compared to English universities that will typically charge £27,000 for a 3-year degree) is that Scottish universities charge them up to £27,000 for their degree. This is only possible because the EU rule about not discriminating against EU students only applies to students from other EU countries (such as Ireland, Denmark or Bulgaria) and not to students from other parts of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

As soon as Scotland regains her independence, rUK students become EU students and will have to be treated in the same way as students from Scotland.

However, some lessons can be learnt from Scandinavia. Denmark in theory has to treat Swedish students the same as Danish ones, but this is not the whole truth.

Denmark used to have a big problem with too many Swedes studying medicine in Copenhagen and then going home after graduation. In 2007, Denmark therefore did two things (link in Danish): (1) They changed the number of advanced highers (“højniveaufag”) a student needs to pass to get a grade top-up, which benefitted Danes in comparison with Swedes. (2) They changed the way they translated Swedish grades into Danes ones (that is, they made it harder for them to get in).

Apart from this, Denmark pays generous grants (typically £7616 per year) to university students who are either Danish citizens, have lived in Denmark for five years prior to starting university, or who have parents that are EU citizens and have moved to Denmark for work reasons. Other students don’t get a penny.

Scotland could copy some of these policies after independence. There are already plenty of differences between A Levels and Scottish Highers to provide opportunities for tweaking the entry requirements to make it harder for English students to get into Scottish universities (the brilliant ones would of course still get in, but that would be to Scotland’s advantage anyway), and Scotland could introduce tuition fees for everybody, but cancel out the effect by creating grants for Scottish citizens and long-term residents.

In an ideal world such measures shouldn’t be necessary, but until it dawns on the English that they’re shooting themselves in the foot by pricing bright young people out of universities, I fear that Scotland will have to take a leaf out of Denmark’s book.

Update (May 2013): Denmark’s rule about only giving grants to long-term residents has been found unlawful by the EU Court of Justice. Now everybody who has moved to Denmark in order to work (even if only for the summer holidays before starting university) has the right to get Danish grants when studying in Denmark.

Independence for Shetland and Orkney?

Originally uploaded by image_less_ordinary

Tavish Scott and some of his unionist friends have been having fun recently suggesting that Shetland and Orkney might separate from Scotland in the case of Scottish independence.

As far as I can see, there are theoretically four options for Shetland and Orkney if Scotland becomes independent:

  1. They can remain part of Scotland.
  2. They can become part of Norway (or Denmark) instead.
  3. They can become part of England.
  4. They can become independent.

Option (1) is of course the most straightforward option. Although option (2) would perhaps tempt some of the islanders temporarily, I’m not sure they’d really want to learn Norwegian as their first foreign language, introduce Norwegian law, go to university in Norway, and so on. Option (3) would possibly appeal to some of the islanders, especially those of them who have moved there from England; however, would the majority of the population really want to be flown to England for complex hospital treatments, or by default go to university in England? Also, the islands have never in their history belonged to England, so it’d be a somewhat strange outcome. Option (4) is of course a possibility, but they have a very small population and don’t even have experience with devolution.

I think it’s a good idea for Shetland and Orkney to get some degree of autonomy within Scotland. Perhaps this would over time develop into full independence, although I’m doubtful. However, to leap from being a full and integrated part of Scotland to becoming an independent nation overnight would be a complete shock to the system, and I’d be very surprised if the islanders themselves would go for it, especially as there is no established independence movement on the islands as far as I know.

I can therefore only conclude that Tavish Scott is just trying to spread uncertainty and fear about the prospects of Scottish independence – he’s not really advocating separating the islands from mainland Scotland. I would have hoped the unionists had some positive arguments in favour of the Union, but that might have been too much to hope for.

Scottish independence as seen from London

Kilt man
Originally uploaded by thecnote

As far as I can gather, we are currently seeing a divide opening between London-based media (the big newspapers and many of the BBC’s flagship programmes, such as the Andrew Marr Show) and Scottish-based media (including Scottish blogs).

The London-based media are acting as if the independence referendum has already been won by the No side, and they’re almost blanking out the SNP. For instance, Andrew Marr seems to have completely ignored Scotland for the past few Sundays, and Fraser Nelson reported that the Unionists won easily at a debate in London.

In the Scottish-based media, on the other hand, there’s definitely no feeling that the independence referendum has been decided yet, and I think it’s fair to say that the Yes side are doing better than their opponents at the moment.

If this divide continues, the next two years are going to be very bizarre, with media in based in London and Scotland appearing to be based on different planets.

I wonder whether the divide will remain intact for the duration of the referendum campaign. If so, I think the London-based media are going to be very interesting to watch in the autumn of 2014, when they suddenly have to face up to the fact that the referendum electorate are all living in Scotland!