Category Archives: Westminster

Don’t answer the questions!

Questions, a photo by elycefeliz on Flickr.
Better Together’s 500/507 questions (PDF) are interesting because of the irrelevance of most of them.

What I mean by this is not that they should never be answered, but that they really aren’t the make-or-break issues that will make people vote Yes or No to independence. Take this question, for instance:

277. What will replace the Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurance Board?

Of course some civil servants or a Scottish Government minister will have to consider this during the independence negotiations after a Yes vote, but apart from the current Scottish members of the UK’s Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurance Board (if there are any), I really can’t see anybody changing their vote from Yes to No or vice versa based on the Yes Campaign’s response to this question. Who would seriously say “They want to create a board with seven members? No way! A maximum of five members, or I’ll be voting No!”?!?

I’m not saying there aren’t any questions that the Yes side should be answering, for instance regarding the independence negotiation team (will it consists only of members of the Yes campaign, or will the opposition be invited to join?) or the creation of a constitution for Scotland (will there be a constitutional convention?). However, the detailed questions are for later, once Scotland is an independent country once more.

I think everybody — the public, the media and the Yes campaign — need to get their heads round the fact that the future is unknown and that we’re choosing a new path for the next two hundred years, not a government for the next four. At the end of the day, it all boils down to who we want to make the decisions that affect our lives — Westminster or Holyrood. Once that question has been decided, the chosen parliament can then proceed to answer all the other questions.

Furthermore, lots of Better Together’s questions are absurd because they wouldn’t be able to answer them for the UK, either, such as this one:

350. How much would a first class stamp cost in a separate Scotland?

Given that Westminster are planning to privatise the Royal Mail soon, I’d be surprised if they actually could tell us what a first class stamp will cost in England in 2016.

A No campaigner might at this point argue that the SNP should at least tell us what their intention is, even if they can’t predict the future with complete certainty. However, this is not a general election, and there’s no guarantee that the SNP will be in power after 2016. It’s quite possible the SNP will disintegrate once their raison d’être has been achieved, so Labour (or at least, a Labour-led coalition) could quite feasibly win the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, and what happens then? Because of this, any question that doesn’t need to be answered before 2016 really should just not be considered yet.

It’s hard not to get the impression that Better Together are asking lots of questions in the hope that Yes Scotland might not have thought of an answer, which will make them look unprepared and stupid, and it’s quite a clever strategy (although asking 507 questions at one time almost gave the game away — it would have been a much better idea to ask one or two a day).

Answering Better Together’s questions means fighting the referendum on their terms. The Yes campaign will therefore have to stop answering most questions and instead hammer home the message that this referendum is not about the exact policies that an independent Scotland will implement on day 1, but about whether Holyrood or Westminster will be in charge of Scotland.

Should Denmark join the UK?

Christiansborg Christiansborg  With the 'tower of power'. Christiansborg is where the danish parliment ('Folketinget') resides.
Christiansborg Christiansborg With the ‘tower of power’. Christiansborg is where the danish parliment (‘Folketinget’) resides., a photo by boegh on Flickr.
British unionists love to praise the Union in such a way that you’d think every small country in the vicinity would want to (re-)join the UK. I presume the arguments would be similar for Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands, but given that I spent the first 30 years of my life in Denmark, I’ll examine whether this country ought to join the UK.

I’m assuming Denmark would get a devolution deal similar to Scotland’s, so that the Danish Folketing would still be in charge of quite a lot of policy areas.

From the UK’s point of view, the deal is a no-brainer because the UK would suddenly become an import player in the Arctic region (Denmark includes Greenland), which would reinforce the UK’s position as a world player and make it less likely the permanent seat on the UN Security Council would get lost. The practical implications would be minor:

  1. The House of Commons would get an addition of Danish members. Given that Denmark is tiny bit bigger than Scotland, we might be talking about adding 63 Danish members to the existing 650 MPs. The Danish members would probably support both sides equally, so it shouldn’t disturb matters too much.
  2. The House of Lords would need some Danish lords, too, but there wouldn’t be any need for a specific number.
  3. Revenues from the Danish North Sea oil rigs would go straight to Westminster.
  4. Danes would be paying a lot of taxes straight to Westminster. In return, a block grant would be sent back to Copenhagen.

From Denmark’s point of view, things are more complicated. The positives include that the British army would have to defend Denmark (but then they already have that obligation, given that both countries are part of NATO), and that the UK would be bailing out any bankrupt Danish banks (but in return Denmark wouldn’t be able to limit the size of the Danish banks, and it’s likely that the biggest ones would shift a large part of their operations to London).

Here are some things that wouldn’t change:

  1. Education: Education would be fully devolved, so Denmark could still let kids start school at the age of 7, maintain Danish as the language of instruction, and keep its own exams. The downside of this is that Danes wouldn’t automatically get better at English, nor would they start sitting internationally well-known exams.
  2. Health: The Danish NHS would be maintained without change. However, funding would come out of Westminster’s block grant for Denmark.
  3. Police: There would still be a Danish police force. But PET and FE would be replaced by MI5 and MI6, and the UK Border Agency would take over the task of guarding the Danish border.
  4. Agriculture and fisheries: Denmark would still have powers in these areas, but the UK would represent Denmark at the EU’s decision-making meetings.

But here are a few things that would:

  1. Oil: The revenues from this would go straight to London, rather than strengthening the Danish economy. The way Denmark has just decided to raid the oil companies to pay for a £3.2bn improvement of the railways would become impossible.
  2. Foreign policy would be run from London. Denmark would have to pull out of the Nordic Council and the special cooperation across the Danish-German border. Denmark would have to introduce passport controls at the borders with Germany and Sweden.
  3. Economic and monetary affairs would be run from London. From time to time, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee might include a Dane or two, but there wouldn’t be a fixed quota.
  4. The Danish monarchy would be replaced by the British one, and Denmark would lose the right to choose its own form of government.
  5. There would presumably still be commercial TV channels covering Denmark, but the public-service TV channels would be merged with the BBC. They would still broadcast some Danish programmes at times, but the majority of the programming would be standard BBC stuff.
  6. The Danish army and navy would become parts of their British counterparts.
  7. Denmark would have to introduce normal UK taxation. Amongst other things, this would mean a reduction in personal taxation, VAT and car taxes, but it would also mean a loss of interest payment deductions and the commuting deduction. In total, this would probably mean that Denmark would have significantly less money to pay for parts of the welfare state, such as subsidised nurseries.
  8. Social benefits would be paid from London. Denmark would have to introduce the bedroom tax, and unemployment benefit would be the standard British jobseeker’s allowance (something like £71 per week).

I find it very unlikely that a proposal for Denmark to join the UK would get even 1% support in a referendum. There are just almost no real benefits, and thousands of negative consequences.

Three hundred years ago, things might have looked different, but these days a small country can be part of the EU and NATO, and then there are just very few reasons for it to join a big one.

Scottish Labour after a Yes vote

Johann Lamont
Originally uploaded by Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour seem to be spending all their resources on attacking the SNP in every way possible and on spreading fear and uncertainty about the prospect of Scottish independence. We haven’t heard much about their visions for Scotland after 2014, no matter whether we vote Yes or No, apart from their determination to introduce university tuition fees and possible also prescription charges.

However, I hope and believe they’ll change after a Yes vote. Here’s how I imagine the process would work:

The day after the referendum (autumn 2014) — Scottish Labour press conference with Johann Lamont, Alastair Darling and the Scottish members of the shadow cabinet in Westminster, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Margaret Curran. They declare that although they’re disappointed with the result, they will respect it, and they will work with the SNP and other Scottish parties to achieve the best possible deal for Scotland in the independence negotiations. Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Margaret Curran resign from the Shadow Cabinet.

Late 2014 — Scottish Labour sever all ties to rUK Labour.

Late 2014 — The Scottish independence negotiation teams are announced. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon will head the main team, but Labour politicians get to lead several of the important teams, in particular Douglas Alexander who becomes the head of the foreign affairs team and Jim Murphy who is put in charge of the defence negotiations. Several Liberal Democrat and Conservative politicians also get chosen to lead negotiation teams.

Late 2014 — Several Scottish MPs announce they will apply for rUK citizenship and stand for Westminster seats in England. At the same time, some Scottish MPs representing English seats declare their intention to move back to Scotland and try to get into the Scottish Parliament in 2016.

Late 2014 — A few Labour MSPs give up their seats “for health reasons”. Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Margaret Curran decide to contest these seats. They are duly elected without too much trouble.

Early 2015 — Johann Lamont decides to resign as leader of Scottish Labour because her leadership was too closely tied to the failed Better Together campaign. Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Margaret Curran all decide to run for leader. After an intense campaign, Jim Murphy becomes the new leader of Scottish Labour. [I’m not implying here that Jim Murphy is Labour’s best politician, but he happens to be my local MP.]

7 May 2015 — Westminster elections. By common consent, all main parties in Scotland decide not to put up challengers to the incumbents, given that independence is now only a year away.

April 2016 — Scottish Labour launch their manifesto for Scottish Parliament elections. Now that they can develop their own policies without undue interference from London, they’re suddenly against tuition fees and prescription charges again.

1 May 2016 — Independence Day.

5 May 2016 — Elections to the Scottish Parliament. The winner is unexpectedly Labour, and Jim Murphy becomes Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Scotland.

The Swiss capital of the European country

The political class in Westminster tend to look at the UK from a London perspective, and to listen especially to the needs of the City of London (i.e., the big financial institutions). Most of the British media exist in the same bubble, which is why so many topics are being discussed as if everybody in the country was making a very comfortable living working in a multinational bank in London.

This became abundantly clear again yesterday, when a majority in Westminster voted to force the UK government to demand an EU budget cut, which is surely another small step towards the Brexit. In other news yesterday, it was noted that the regional divide is growing within England, and Scotland was fully preoccupied with the question of Scottish membership of the EU.

The problem is that London is to a large extent a global Switzerland, and as such EU membership isn’t necessarily such a good idea — a Swiss solution vis-à-vis the EU and lots of bilateral free-trade agreements would probably suit London best.

On the other hand, the rest of the UK is probably not that different from most of Europe, and although we can save Scotland through Scottish independence, I do fear for the prospects of the north of England if London takes the (r)UK out of the EU.

I often think that independence for Greater London would solve even more problems than Scottish independence, but alas it’s not on offer.

The current state of affairs is a bit like if the Switzerland and France had formed a union at some point and had moved the capital, the company headquarters, the politicians and the media companies to Zürich, with the result that both parts of the union were being run based on what was best for Zürich. I doubt most of France would have flourished in such a scenario.

Hanging on to the consultation responses was a masterstroke

When the Edinburgh Agreement was signed, David Cameron and the rest of the UK government were ecstatic that they had managed to restrict the referendum to a single question, while the Scottish government were saying they had never wanted a second question in the first place, but that they had wanted to keep the option open in case there had been huge demand for it in their consultation.

I thought at the time it was a bit odd they couldn’t find the resources to publish the analysis of the consultation responses before the decision was made, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

However, today the analysis of the responses was published (PDF), and suddenly everything has clicked into place.

The consultation responses showed a big majority in favour of a single question, so the Scottish Government could never have used them to put a second question on the ballot paper.

In other words, if the Scottish government had released the responses a month ago, the UK government would have realised there was no danger that the Scottish government would actually put a second question on the ballot paper, and they would have asked for something else instead in the negotiations.

So by delaying the release of the responses to the consultation until after the Edinburgh Agreement had been signed, the Scottish government managed to get everything they wanted themselves, as well as what the Scottish public asked for in the consultation.

Scotland should have 109 MPs, not 52

The Tories and the LibDems are reducing the number of seats in the House of Commons from 646 to 600. As part of this, the four nations’ representations will be equalised to the same number of voters per seat (until now, the smaller nations have had smaller seats than England); for instance, Wales will see its number of MPs drop from 40 to 30.

Most people seem to think this is fair, and many English MPs are even calling for a further reduction in the number of Scottish MPs to cancel out the effect of Scottish devolution.

However, according to the Penrose method, also sometimes described as the square root formula, each nation should get allocated seats according the square root of the population to achieve equal voting powers for all people represented.

Here’s a table showing the figures for actual and calculated numbers of MPs:

Country Population Actual 2015 seats Square root seats
England 52,234,000 502 344
Scotland 5,254,800 52 109
Wales 3,006,400 30 83
Northern Ireland 1,799,392 16 64
Total 62,294,592 600 600

The square root method has been suggested for allocating seats in the European Parliament (although the current method used there results in similar results).

I guess it all depends on the status of the four nations of the UK. If they’re just seen as electoral regions of a single country, the CoLD coalition’s proposal makes perfect sense (but then devolution should probably be abolished); on the other hand, if the Westminster Parliament is seen as a supranational parliament for the union of the four sovereign nations of the UK, the Penrose method should be used.

If Penrose isn’t used, I presume it means Scotland will have more influence as an independent country, so unless the No parties put Penrose on the table as an alternative, I would strongly suggest voting Yes to independence.

Two options: Independence or Devo-Max

So now David Cameron is promising more powers after a No to Scottish Independence:

And let me say something else about devolution.

That doesn’t have to be the end of the road.

When the referendum on independence is over, I am open to looking at how the devolved settlement can be improved further.

And yes, that means considering what further powers could be devolved.

But that must be a question for after the referendum, when Scotland has made its choice about the fundamental question of independence.

Alex Massie sums up quite nicely how much the Tory position has changed recently.

However, I do think Cameron’s idea that the SNP have to spell out in minute detail what independence will mean while he only needs to put his thinking-hat on after a No vote is manifestly unfair.

If a No vote effectively is a vote for Devo-Max, then Cameron needs to say so clearly now.

Incidentally this would solve the big outstanding issue about the referendum, namely that the SNP would like to include Devo-Max on the ballot paper while Westminster want only two options. The solution is simple: Put the following two options on the ballot paper:

  1. Independence
  2. Devo-Max

Of course, the Unionist parties would have to spell out Devo-Max in full detail before the referendum, but surely they’ll have time to do that before 2014.