Category Archives: featured

Foreign policy priorities

As a rule of thumb, I reckon you can get a rough idea of a country’s foreign policy priorities by drawing a circle around the capital, because this is where the parliamentarians, government ministers and the foreign office staff are based, so the capital is the centre of their universe.

On the following map, I’ve drawn a 500-mile radius around Edinburgh, London, Copenhagen and Berlin to illustrate this idea:

The foreign policy priorities of Edinburgh, London, Copenhagen and Berlin.

Copenhagen’s circle includes significant parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. This perhaps explains why Denmark fought so hard for the independence of the Baltic countries and for their eventual membership of the EU when most other EU countries didn’t think it was that important.

London’s circle takes in most of the British Isles (but not Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides), France, the Low Countries and Germany, and bits of Denmark and Switzerland, which is probably a reasonable guide to how London-based media view Europe.

Berlin’s circle takes in a lot on Central Europe, but the exact details need not concern us here.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to do is to look at the difference between Edinburgh and London. Compared to the UK capital, the circle of Scotland’s capital includes all of the Scottish islands, the Faeroes and significant parts of Norway, but excludes large parts of France and Germany. This means we can expect Scotland’s foreign policies to focus much more on Scandinavia and the North Atlantic.

200-mile radiusWhen I posted the map above on Twitter, Statgeek posted a map showing a 200 mile radius for London and Edinburgh (reproduced on the right) as a reply, noting the connexion between this and the HS2 plans and lack of infrastructure in North, as well as the fact that Northern Ireland is included in the Edinburgh circle but not in the London one.

If my circle theory is right, we should not expect the rUK’s foreign policy priorities to be significantly different from the UK’s; on the other hand, Scotland’s are likely to revert to the situation before the Union was created.

It will be fascinating to watch.

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.

The weakening of the Scottish institutions

Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Prime Minister Gordon Brown by Downing Street, on Flickr.
It might come as something of a shock to people who know me, but for once I agree with Gordon Brown (in his recent article in The Guardian):

It is also a mistake to think what’s new is Scotland demanding its own national institutions and the freedom to run them. From its churches and law to its schools, universities and hospitals, Scotland has had its own distinctive national institutions throughout all those 300 years of union. […]

Perhaps surprisingly, what is also new is the recent loss of a million members from Scotland’s churches and the weakening of the Scottish institutions – religious, legal, educational and even sporting – which expressed our Scottishness. They provided an anchor that made us comfortable with being part of Britain. The delicate balance between cultural nationalism and political unionism has been ruptured […]

I think this analysis is spot on. For centuries, Scotland effectively had cultural autonomy within a political, economic and monetary union called the British Empire. Because of this autonomy, and because almost no Scots spoke English as their native language until recently (Scots and Gaelic dominated for a long time as spoken languages, and English was only used in schools and churches and some other formal settings), their was no threat to Scottishness at all.

However, these days it’s getting harder and harder to define what it means to be Scottish. The TV programmes young people watch the most are British (X Factor, Big Brother, The Apprentice, Britain’s Got Talent and so on), the churches are dying out, and Scots increasingly speak standard English with a slight accent — and even that is dying out (my kids are struggling with pronouncing the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ and the ‘w’ in ‘whale’). Gordon Brown even created a UK-wide football team for the Olympics.

I’m surprised how Gordon Brown can see these issues so clearly and yet fail to provide any solutions for them. His article doesn’t suggest any concrete measures — he doesn’t suggest splitting up the BBC into four national broadcasters, he doesn’t think the UK should field four separate Olympic teams, he doesn’t draw up a plan for revitalising Scots and Gaelic.

Because Unionists don’t seem to want to do anything to create new distinctive Scottish institutions to repair the “delicate balance between cultural nationalism and political unionism”, I cannot help but conclude that they’re happy to see Scotland merging gradually with England until eventually it becomes just another British region like Yorkshire or Devon.

I agree with Gordon Brown’s analysis, and so far as I can see, the only practical solution to the problems he raises is independence. Surely he can see that too?

Move to London if you want a promotion

Yes, Minister
Yes, Minister by D Huw Richardson, on Flickr.
I used to work in the Scottish branch of multinational corporation that — like so many others — has its UK HQ in London. During my years there I observed how management in London kept bringing more the people reporting to them down south to make things work more smoothly there. The effect might have been positive there, but the effect in Bishopbriggs was a dwindling number of employees and a strong feeling that you had to be willing to move away if you wanted a career.

My dear wife has also told me plenty of stories about uni friends who were told to relocate to London if they wanted a promotion. Some of them were able to move back to Scotland after a few years there, but others got stuck for life.

It was one of the consequences of moving to Scotland that I just wasn’t prepared for at all. In Denmark, it’s possible for almost everybody to spend their entire working life in that country without emigrating. In a few multinational companies, it might be preferable to spend a few years in other countries, but that’s generally only required for top management, not for people in the middle. So when I moved to Scotland, I naturally expected I would be able to have a career without flitting abroad once again.

I therefore found the Tories’ Devo Jam proposal (PDF) very interesting. Apart from the proposals for giving the Scottish Parliament full income tax powers, it contained the following on page 12 (my emphasis):

Civil servants obviously play a key role in the development and
commissioning of policy. We believe that the Scottish Government and Parliament should be able to call upon the best and brightest from across the Civil Service UK wide. We also believe that the rest of the UK would benefit from a Scottish view and accordingly recommend that civil servants who expect to reach the higher echelons of their profession in Scotland should spend a part of their career development in other parts of the UK.

In other words, they want to ensure that what I encountered in my previous job becomes obligatory in the Civil Service. You shouldn’t be able to spend your entire working life in Scotland unless you’re happy never to get promoted. If that means that your children grow up in England and effectively become English, that’s just the how things are if you’re Scottish. (One shouldn’t forget that because the education systems are different in Scotland and England, it’s not easy to move back and forwards if you have school-age kids — it’s the equivalent of moving between Copenhagen and Stockholm, not between Århus and Copenhagen.)

Would it be possible to imagine this rule applied to everybody, so that civil servants starting their career in Whitehall had to spend a number of years in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast in order to gain a promotion? Of course not! It’s a way to enforce a UK mindset and to emphasise London’s role as the only place in the UK that really matters.

I want to live in a country where moving abroad is an option for the adventurous, not an obligation for a large part of the population. If my kids want to move abroad like I did, that’s fine, but I don’t want them to be forced to do so because there aren’t any decent jobs to get at home.

Incidentally creating more managerial jobs and company headquarters in Scotland will also increase the tax base, making it much easier to create a Scandinavian-style welfare state here. We can create a country where nobody is starving or homeless and nobody is forced to emigrate. We just need to vote Yes in September.

To vote Yes is to vote against xenophobia

Borderline Racists
Borderline Racists by Matt Brown, on Flickr.
Lots of commentators — mainly, but not exclusively, based south of the border — seem to have got into their heads that the SNP and UKIP are quite similar. Apart from the inescapable fact that both party names end in the letter P, the only similarity I can think of is that they’re both excellent at articulating people’s antipathy towards Westminster.

On the other hand, one of the biggest differences between the SNP and UKIP is their stance on racism and xenophobia.

The SNP is extremely open and tolerant. Nobody ever criticises me for being Danish; in fact, people are keen to hear how things are done in Denmark. The SNP is also full of people who have foreign relatives or have lived abroad. Some of the party’s most popular MSPs are Humza Yousaf and French-born Christian Allard. It’s not anti-English, either — for instance, several of the party’s parliamentarians were born in England — it’s just that the criticisms of the corrupt Westminster system at times get misunderstood.

The wider Yes campaign is if possible even more xenophilic than the SNP, given that the other political parties involved are the Greens, the SSP and the most progressive parts of Labour.

UKIP on the other hand is clearly blowing the racist and xenophobic dog whistle so hard that my ears hurt. They might be trying to appear respectable in public, but anyone who has seen their recent election posters knows exactly what they’re thinking. It’s a horrible party — if possible even more repugnant than Denmark’s Dansk Folkeparti.

However, Scotland after independence won’t be run by the Yes campaign or even just by the SNP. Labour will probably get into power at some point, and it’s likely Scotland will also develop a right-of-centre party at some point. So why should Scotland in the longer term continue its tolerant trajectory?

Apart from the fact that the Yes side will be in the ascendency after a Yes vote and will be able to infuse Scotland with its values, there are several reasons to believe Scotland will be very different:

Firstly, Scotland has a great history of tolerance. For instance, as Frank Angell wrote in the Jewish Chronicle:

[O]ur history is at least unstained by anti-Jewish discrimination, rare among European nations, and our 14th century independence Declaration of Arbroath contains the statement: “There is neither weighing nor distinction of Jew and Greek, Scotsman or Englishman.”

Secondly, as I’ve discussed before, Scotland has never been a homogeneous country, it’s always been a country of immigrants and emigrants, and the native use of English is a good bulwark against parochialism. This means that right-wing politicians can’t appeal to memories of the “good old days” when everybody spoke one language and belonged to one religion.

Thirdly, most of the UK hasn’t actually had that much immigration, but the fact that most of the mainstream media are based in London makes many people overestimate the actual amount of immigration that has happened. In an independent Scotland, the media would be basing their reporting on Scottish statistics, and they would be located in Scotland, so they would reflect the actual reality, which should make immigration debates less fact-resistant.

Of course nobody knows the future, but the likelihood is that Scotland after independence will be an open and tolerant country. However, so long as we’re part of the UK, we’ll keep receiving the BBC’s UKIP propaganda, and if a future UK government decides to close the borders, it’s Scotland’s economy that will suffer the most (because we need immigration more than the rUK).

Will Scotland be a lucky country?

Four-leaf Clover
Four-leaf Clover by Hyoung Won Park, on Flickr.
A while ago the psychologist Richard Wiseman did some research into luck, in particular why some people seem to be luckier than others:

My research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

Can these principles be applied to a country as well as individuals? And if they can, would they combine to make Scotland a lucky place after independence? Let’s have a look at each of them in turn.

On the first principle — chance opportunities — it’s well known that small independent countries can react more quickly to them. As Stephen Noon puts it: “Government and institutions can be structured more effectively, making our size an advantage, with shorter lines of communication and the ability to bring together key decision makers, allowing a quicker response to changing economic conditions.” While we’re a part of the UK, it’s much harder to react swiftly, because we don’t have all the powers here and might need to bring Westminster on board before we can act. (One might argue that entering into a political union with England in 1707 was a case of a small country pursuing a chance opportunity, and Scotland did indeed do amazingly well out of it for the first 100-200 years. After that, Scotland stopped acting like a small country and more like a region of a large one.)

The second principle — intuition — is harder to apply to a country. One might argue that in a country with a high degree of trust in political institutions, there’s a tendency to accept other people’s actions without seeing the rationale for them. The problem with this argument is that not all small countries are very trusting. According to this article, the Nordic countries score very highly, but many ex-communist countries are at the bottom. So a lot might here depend on Scotland managing to learn the right lessons from the Scandinavia.

The third principle — self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations — applies easily: The story of Scotland is a positive one, especially after a Yes vote, and it’s one that will appeal to people both here and abroad. It’s not like the UK that immediately conjures up images on colonialism, racism, privilege and corruption. So people in an independent Scotland will expect to do well, and therefore they will.

The fourth principle — a resilient attitude — comes naturally in a small country. I grew up in Denmark, and you had a feeling that you were all in it together. If the government for instance said that salaries were rising too fast, it was easy to reach a consensus to do something about it — you didn’t feel that your benefits were being cut and your taxes increased just so that the bankers in could keep their bonuses.

Richard Wiseman adds:

Unlucky people often fail to follow their intuition when making a choice, whereas lucky people tend to respect hunches. Lucky people are interested in how they both think and feel about the various options, rather than simply looking at the rational side of the situation. I think this helps them because gut feelings act as an alarm bell – a reason to consider a decision carefully. Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives.

This is a very accurate description of the Yes and No campaigns: Most Yes campaigners both think and feel that independence is the right way forward, whereas the No campaigners tend to fight for a No in spite of their feelings (the “I’m a proud Scot but …” sentiment). Also, many No campaigners cling to the UK because that’s their routine, whereas Yes campaigners love to think about the endless possibilities that an independent Scotland will offer us.

Of course Scotland will still belong to both groups after the referendum, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that the winning campaign will make Scotland more like themselves. If Yes wins, the visionaries and optimists will be running the country, whereas it will be the unlucky pessimists who will be running the show after a No vote.

If Scotland votes Yes on 18 September, the country will be brimming with energy and positivism — exactly the circumstances that means we’ll create and notice chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to our intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good. In other words, Scotland will become a lucky country.

Views from visitors

My friend Kakha in the Pot Still
My friend Kakha in the Pot Still, a photo by viralbus on Flickr.
In the past months, foreign visits have taken up a lot of my spare time. A couple of weeks ago, my old friend Kakha from Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia) visited us for a few days, and now my mother has arrived from Denmark. Both have been political activists in the past, so it’s always refreshing to hear their views on the independence debate.

Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the following year its autonomous region Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia. Later South Ossetia decided to do the same, which led to the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. In other words, Georgia has both positive and negative experiences with independence movements.

It was therefore necessary for me to persuade Kakha that Scotland is similar to Georgia, not to Abkhazia or South Ossetia. However, both Scotland and Georgia experienced many centuries as independent countries before they became part of a political union with a big neighbour, they maintained a distinct identity within that union, and their right to self-determination was never seriously in doubt, so it wasn’t hard to convince him.

Once that had been settled, Kakha spent the remainder of his visit asking how anybody in their right mind could vote No to independence. He simply couldn’t understand how people who consider themselves Scottish could even contemplate voting against independence. I tried to explain the Scottish cringe and all that, but he didn’t get it. The only explanation that he could see any merit in was when I suggested that some people overestimate Scotland’s influence within the UK. Most other potential reasons were dismissed with words too strong for this blog, especially when I dared to quote the “we’re too poor” line. “But you’ve got whisky and oil!!!” cried Kakha.

My mum is less agitated about the independence issue than Kakha, but she keeps repeating that she doesn’t get why people don’t understand that Westminster wouldn’t be bullying and scaremongering if they didn’t have a lot to lose from Scottish independence, and that Scottish independence must consequently be a good idea.

In their own ways, Kakha and my mum both demonstrate that The Herald’s foreign editor was spot-on when he summarised typical foreign views of the independence referendum:

[E]ven in countries all too familiar with the risks and costs that political separation brings, the anecdotal evidence suggests people still think it a cause we Scots should embrace. Viewed through the prism of such people and their experiences, the ludicrous scaremongering that has been a hallmark of the debate within the UK can be seen for the nonsense that it is. If such people are not afraid, why should we Scots be?