Monday, 22 September 2014

What about East Lothian and Midlothian?

The West Lothian question has been kicking around for many years as an unresolved issue; but just as there is more to Lothian than the western part, so there is more to this question than is usually asked.
The question generally concentrates on the legislative branch of government, and in that narrow context, it is hard to argue with the claim that it is unfair that MPs from outside England can vote on issues such as health and education which are, in their own areas, devolved to another legislature.  It’s made more complex by the different nature of the devolution settlements in the different parts of the UK, but the principle is quite clear.
The reverse problem applies, however, when it comes to the executive branch of government.  This side receives a lot less attention, because here it is England which gains and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland which lose out.  When the UK cabinet discusses the UK’s finances, or foreign affairs, or defence issues, the English ministers for health, education etc. can and do have a direct input to the discussions, whereas their Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish equivalents are shamelessly excluded.  This is just as unfair as the problem with the legislature.
The problem with the simplistic responses which are being suggested by most is that they are overlooking the real cause of the problem, which is that the House of Commons and the Cabinet are trying to do different and incompatible things.  The House of Commons is trying to be both a UK parliament and an English parliament, and the Cabinet is trying to be both a UK cabinet and an English cabinet.
English votes for English laws is a good slogan, and it’s hard to disagree.  It might even be made to work, as long as the party which has a majority in the UK also has a majority in England.  But it doesn’t solve the problem with the cabinet, and the idea that the interests and views of the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Ireland governments can ever be represented by the respective secretaries of state is complete nonsense.  They seem to spend much of their time telling those other governments that they’re doing the wrong things.
It’s not often that I find myself in agreement with even part of what David Davis says, but in an article in the Sunday Times yesterday, he said that “we have started down a road that will almost certainly lead to an English parliament, an English first minister, and an English cabinet”.  On that, I agree (although whether ‘England’ should be treated as a whole or as a number of regions is an open question.  For anyone wanting to see a stable federal solution, ‘regionalisation’ is likely to be the preferred option, but it’s a matter for the English to decide for themselves.) 
The real question is not what form the English legislature and executive take (they can keep their beloved Westminster for that, and simply elect members only from England) but what form the new federal structure should take.  Whilst the reserved matters – largely defence and foreign affairs – are very important ones, the volume of legislation is hardly enormous.  In their rush to cobble something (and we still don’t know what!) together to head off a yes vote, this is an area they haven’t even begun to think about.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Clinging to the past

In recent days, I’ve read two editorial pieces in newspapers urging the Scots to vote no tomorrow.  The first was in Saturday’s Western Mail, and the second was in the Sunday Times.  Both echoed the Prime Minister’s comments about the enormous contribution which Scots have made to the UK – and they both equally echoed his failure to explain exactly what Scotland had gained in return for this contribution.
Both also manage to “mention the war”, albeit obliquely in terms of “wars against tyrants” in the one case, and “leading the fight against fascism” in the other.  In recent weeks, others have attempted to use past military activity in a blunter, even offensive way, such as the suggestion by a former general that independence would be a betrayal of those Scottish soldiers who had died for the Union.
There is a more general point here.  Many of those espousing the values of ‘Britishness’ – even when there isn’t a referendum on – have enormous difficulty in doing so without mentioning the war, or wars.  I can understand their general difficulty in defining ‘Britishness’ (I have the same difficulty in defining ‘Welshness’, as it happens), but falling back on past military glories isn’t the easy and unifying answer which they seem to assume. 
Rather than defining an inclusive something of which we can all be part, the inclusion of military actions as a part of the definition always sounds to me more like an attempt to impose their own definition on the rest of us.  And for those of us of a less warlike bent, it is counter-productive; it serves to emphasis the gulf in perception.  It’s very much an Establishment view of the UK’s history and of what it means to be British.
Perhaps the problem lies not in the nature of the definition being offered, but in the attempt to make any sort of definition at all.  I cannot define what it means to be Welsh – of course there are a range of factors involved including geography, language, culture, and, yes, history – but I’m not sure it matters.  If enough people consider themselves Welsh, then ‘Wales’ exists.  The fact that all of those who consider themselves ‘Welsh’ mean something slightly different is, ultimately, neither here nor there.
So – why does anyone need a definition of ‘Britishness’ at all?  It seems to me that the various attempts to come up with one reflect a growing sense of insecurity amongst those making the attempt.  The world is changing around them – the UK is changing around them – in ways which are deeply discomforting to them.  Old certainties are being challenged and found wanting.  And instead of adapting, they are clinging to the past, and demanding that the rest of us do likewise.
But, in the words of a certain relevant song, “those days are passed now”.  Whatever the result tomorrow, things will never be the same again.  Those who want the UK, or whatever is left of it, to continue will need to start looking more to the future than the past.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Change and stability

One of the things which establishment politicians often tell us is that business demands stability; it’s used as an argument against any change which ‘business’ doesn’t like.  It’s an argument which has been used in, but which is not restricted to, the Scottish referendum.  At first sight, it seems obvious, but is it true?  One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that not everything which is obvious is true, and not everything which is true is obvious.
I can certainly see why established businesses, particularly the large, slow-moving variety, might prefer things to stay as they are.  Planning with certainty enables them to continue making and banking their profits, and that’s what established capitalists like.
But supporters of capitalism in the more general sense tell us that one of the things at which capitalism is good is innovation.  They go further and talk about creative destruction – that is the idea that older established organisations which aren’t innovating can and should go to the wall to be replaced by newer more innovative enterprises.  But what drives innovation?
There isn’t a single driver, of course, and I don’t want to over-simplify.  But one of the things which drives businesses to innovate and creates the openings for new businesses is change in the operating environment.  When things change, companies either adapt or die; and new companies arise to fill new or changed niches.  So, whilst established capitalists prefer to resist change in order to protect their investment and interests, capitalism in the more general sense allegedly thrives on change.
This is relevant to the referendum; it’s also more generally relevant to other changes, whether they are to do with tax regimes or constitutional arrangements.  The impact of such changes is inherently unpredictable, precisely because we can never know how organisations will change and adapt in response – and all predictions of disaster (or success) should be viewed in that context.
If that’s true, and I believe it to be, then when establishment politicians say that stability is important, whose interests are they really protecting and promoting?  It is, of course, the interests of those who are doing well out of the status quo (and who, purely coincidentally, provide most of the funding for said politicians).  In this sense, despite a few minor differences in presentation, all the establishment politicians from all the parties are supporting the interests of the same, comparatively small, group of people.  Talk of business-friendly policies is often a short-hand way of referring to policies which protect the interests of existing businesses.
That isn’t the same thing at all.  One doesn’t need to be an opponent of capitalism to see that supporting the interests of existing capitalists isn’t the same thing as supporting capitalism.  The point is that we shouldn’t allow people who are simply defending their own interests to dictate to us what we can or can’t do – and we shouldn’t believe the politicians who parrot the same line on their behalf.
That’s true in relation to the referendum on Thursday, but it’s also true in a host of other fields, such as taxation policy, living wage…  If capitalism is really to work for us, it should be able to do so on our terms, and within whatever structures and policies we want to adopt.  But capitalists are powerful people; they and their supporters control the media and therefore much of what we hear and read.  One of the most exciting aspects of what has been going on in Scotland over the past few weeks has been the way in which people have increasingly been able to see through that dominance and control.  Will it be enough?  We'll find out in a few days.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Forever is a long long time

Over the weekend, Cameron set out to make it clear that a vote for an independent Scotland is irrevocable.  Strictly speaking, it’s not entirely true; I can think of no good reason why an attempt to recreate the union a generation or three hence would necessarily be ruled out if it appeared to be in the best interests of all concerned.  But in practice, once countries have gained their independence, they invariably decide to keep it, and there is no reason why Scotland would be any different.
That means, of course, that the referendum is not an even-sided contest in one sense.  A decision to remain in the union in this stage does not settle the issue anywhere near as definitively as a decision to leave, even though the unionists seem to speak as though it does. 
Much of what I’ve heard from the Westminster elite during the referendum campaign brings to mind the words of the late Iain McLeod at the time of rapid decolonisation, when he said that people tend to prefer self-government to good government.  It's true, but there’s also a very colonial attitude in the statement, with its implication that ‘good government’ depended on continuing to be part of the empire as was.
And that attitude, albeit unspoken, seems still to permeate the debate from the Westminster side in Scotland.  The Old Etonian and Oxbridge elite which still largely runs the UK really neither understands why anybody might want things to be different nor believes that anyone else can ‘do’ government as well as them.  This lack of understanding at such a basic level has been a huge handicap for the ‘no’ side; it’s as though the Establishment for many months simply assumed that it was as obvious to everyone else as it was to them that the status quo is natural and inevitable.
One might think that a ruling elite which saw the loss, during the twentieth century, of huge swathes of its territory and population might have learned by now that the sky doesn’t fall in as a consequence.  But their increasingly wild and incredible forecasts of “financial meltdown” and other forms of disaster at the thought of a mere 8% of the population going its own way indicate either that they have learned nothing or else that they really don’t believe most of what they are saying.  I tend to the latter interpretation; they may be stuck in outdated attitudes, but I don’t, on the whole, consider them stupid.
Apparently, Wellington never actually said that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton”, but that doesn’t mean that the alumni of that college and other similar institutions don’t end up with a certain feeling of superiority, and a belief that they are born to govern the rest of us.  Whilst they are trying to persuade the Scots that independence would be bad for them, I suspect that it isn’t really concern for what is or is not good for the Scots which drives them.  Their driver probably isn’t even about what’s good or bad for the UK as a whole either, beyond their belief that their continued control is obviously a good thing.  Their problem is that a break-up of the UK challenges what they see as the natural order of things, and that includes both the UK’s role in the world and their own role in the UK.  

And that’s a pretty good reason for anyone to vote yes.

Friday, 12 September 2014

As long as we beat the Germans...

When I first read this piece yesterday, I checked the date.  It was a spoof, surely?  But no, it's genuine.  Someone really did think that it was a good idea to send John Prescott to Scotland to campaign for a 'no' vote, and he really did go.  The main argument that he deployed, insofar as there was one, seemed to be that the Tories would be antagonistic to an independent Scotland, and would resort to bullying the smaller neighbour.  

But the absolute classic – bearing in mind that he was supposed to be persuading Scotland to vote for the 'no' camp's 'vision' of the future – was to suggest that Scotland should no longer have its own football team, and that pooling English and Scottish resources would enable 'we' to beat the Germans.  (I can only assume that Wales and Northern Ireland are assumed to be part of 'England' in this context, but who can know for certain?) 

Even the most ardent Scottish unionist would struggle to explain why beating the Germans at football should be one of their priorities.  If he gets an invite to go to Scotland and campaign some more, it will probably be signed personally by Alex Salmond.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Rocks and hard places

I don’t know whether it’s true that Gordon Brown still enjoys much more support and respect in Scotland than he does in the rest of the UK.  It’s reported as a fact by the UK media, but it has a slight feel of being one of those pieces of ‘conventional wisdom’ as seen from the perspective of Westminster; the sort of wisdom which only matches the facts in the imagination.
True or not, the ‘no’ camp seem to be placing a lot of faith in his ability to win people over in the last week or so of the campaign.  It’s hard to judge whether that faith is misplaced.  His task is not an easy one with the momentum going the other way, and it isn’t made any easier by the differing perspectives held within his own party on some of the key issues, such as funding mechanisms.
Last week, he declared that the Barnett formula is a “needs-based approach” to allocating resources, and said: “I don’t think there is going to be much change in the Barnett formula at all in future years”.  Speaking to a Scottish audience, I guess he didn’t have a lot of choice.  But I can’t imagine that our own First Minister can have been best pleased as he prepared to make the journey north to support Brown and others in the Labour Party.
It’s a problem of Labour’s own making.  They’ve had the facts and they had the opportunity to search for a way forward on funding which reconciled the different perspectives in Wales and Scotland.  But they decided that it was too difficult, and bottled it.
But those different perspectives also undermine something else which was part of Brown’s key message.  He said of the Union, “We are four nations that have come together.  We have proved what no other four nations have proved, that we can allocate resources amongst each other, according to need.” 
Given the large and growing geographical inequalities in the UK, and given the forensic dissection of the effects of the Barnett formula by the Holtham Commission and others, many would argue that the UK has proved quite the opposite – that it is in fact utterly unable to allocate resources according to need. 
This has been one of the weaknesses of the unionist case from the outset – whilst, theoretically, a union ought to be able to redistribute resources fairly, successive governments have shown only limited inclination to attempt it.  If they had succeeded, then the unionist case would have been very much stronger; but claiming to have done something which has patently not been done only draws more attention to the problem.
Worse still, if people like Brown really do believe that they have achieved this outcome, then we can be fairly certain that they won’t feel much need to change what they’re doing if they win the next UK election.  After all, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”.  I almost feel sorry for the “senior elected Labour politician in the UK”, as he finds himself bound to support a campaign which is, effectively, trashing the conclusions of the Holtham report and distancing itself from everything that he has been saying on funding.  But only almost.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Killer arguments

In releasing correspondence with the European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro last week, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury seems to be claiming that he’s come up with some sort of killer argument against an independent Scotland using sterling as its currency.  One of the statements contained in the correspondence was that “No country has ever joined the EU while using only the currency of another country at the point of accession”.
As a statement, it’s an indisputable fact – but what does it really tell us?  As a comparison with Scotland, Alexander refers to the case of Montenegro as though it were a direct comparison.  Whilst it’s the nearest - and the only – comparison that he can find, it isn’t really a very direct one, because the territory and population of Montenegro are outside the EU; that is not true for Scotland.
The point is that ‘internal enlargement’ is not something that the EU’s rules cover; it’s an entirely novel situation.  And that means that it’s really impossible for anyone – on either side – to make any definitive statements about how rules designed for a rather different situation would actually be applied.  Given the concerns of other EU states about independence movements within their borders, one thing of which we can be pretty certain is that the EU’s rules will not be changed to deal with internal enlargement unless and until such a situation becomes inevitable.  That may be after the referendum in Scotland in a fortnight; it may be after the proposed Catalan referendum in November; it may be a result of a break-up of Belgium.  Or it may be at some other point in the future; at this stage, we simply can’t be sure.
But when the point does arrive, how will the EU and its member states respond?  My own view is that the answer is ‘pragmatically and rapidly’.  After all, that’s what happened when Germany was reunified – another situation for which the rules never allowed; a way was found in which the EU could and did do the sensible and obvious thing.  I can see no reason why the same would not happen to accommodate what is, in the grand scheme of things, simply a change in governance arrangements for a small area within the existing EU borders.
Danny Alexander strikes me as a not unintelligent man (about as complimentary as I get for a Lib Dem).  It is entirely credible to me that, having considered the matter carefully, he firmly believes that independence is the wrong way forward for Scotland.  I disagree; but it’s an honest and honourable position for him to hold.  There’s nothing unpatriotic about believing that one future is better for Scotland than another.
But I don’t find it in the least bit credible that he really believes that the EU would respond other than in a pragmatic fashion to the situation which will come into being if the Scots exercise their right to choose self-determination.  By claiming that he does indeed believe what he’s saying about the ‘impossibility’ of what is being proposed, he merely casts doubt on the credibility of anything else he says.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Not all change is good

Wales has travelled a long way in recent decades, and things haven’t always changed for the better.  There was a heady time thirty-odd years ago when all Wales’ councils came together to sign the nuclear-free Wales declaration.  How different things are today with the Welsh establishment seemingly falling over itself to welcome the heads of government of NATO, a military organisation which continues to argue that the possession of nuclear weapons is an essential part of ‘defence’.
It is partly a result of the insistence on continued possession of its nuclear armoury that the 28 member states of NATO account for around 70% of global military expenditure; yet one of the themes of the two-day extravaganza in Newport is apparently to be that member states aren’t devoting enough resources to the military, and should increase the total.
For what?  A military alliance which was supposed to be defensive has become more interventionist, and is planning to become even more so.  Acting well outside the borders of its member states, it is increasingly taking on the role of supporting US foreign policy on a global basis – it’s a long way from the founding basis that “an armed attack against one … would be considered an attack against all”.  Instead, it’s become the means by which the hegemony of one world view is maintained, and if necessary imposed.
It can be argued that there is a need for a military organisation with global reach to back up decisions taken by the UN, but it’s hard to see how an organisation so tied to the US, and whose membership is open only to “any other European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area” can ever be generally accepted in that rôle.  Indeed, it’s likelier that the existence of such a powerful military alliance will actually militate against the development of a true international police force.
One of my first ever interventions in Plaid Cymru’s policy formulation was to propose a conference motion in 1972 calling for Plaid to reject NATO membership for Wales.  It hit a little opposition from some good friends in London Branch, but was passed overwhelmingly.  As far as I’m aware, it remains Plaid’s policy.  It’s been a disappointment to me that Plaid’s sister party, the SNP, recently changed its policy to support Scottish membership of NATO – I think that was a huge mistake for the party to make.
When that nuclear free declaration was made back in 1982, many of us thought that Wales was on the road to becoming a land of peace; but in 2014, it seems to be a land which actively welcomes the warmongers.  As I said at the outset, not all change has been for the better.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Emblems and Britishness

At the weekend, it was announced that Paul McCartney had added his voice to the list of ‘slebs’ urging the Scots to reject Independence on 18th September.  I’ve never really understood the desire of politicians to garner the support of slebs; I suppose star backing may influence some people, but it adds little to the substance of any debate.  Whatever, McCartney is as entitled to hold and express an opinion on the matters of the day as I am, even if that opinion seems, as others have pointed out, to be at variance with views expressed in another context.
What interested me more was the comment by the historian Tom Holland, who with Dan Snow is behind the “Let’s Stay Together” campaign.  He said, “Who better to appreciate the costs of a fractious break-up than Paul McCartney.  To this day, the Beatles serve as emblems of Britain at its most joyous, creative and generous”.
Leaving aside the question of whether the Beatles have always been seen in that light – I seem to remember that the Establishment did not look so kindly upon them in the 1960s, but that’s just showing my age – it tells us more about Holland and Snow’s conception of ‘Britain’ that it does about the arguments for and against Scottish independence.  And it underlines, yet again, the difficulty of defining nationality and national characteristics.  If I don’t see the Beatles as being in any way an ‘emblem’ for ‘Britain’ as a whole, does that make me un-British?  (And note that asking that question has nothing to do with liking the music or not.)
At a legal level, nationality is very easy to define.  My passport defines me as a ‘British Citizen’ – which is at least a step forward from being a subject of Her Britannic Majesty which is the way my very first passport defined me – but that’s actually just short-hand for ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.  But being British (or perhaps Ukanian would be a more accurate description) by law isn’t the end of the matter for any of us.
Ultimately the most important aspect of nationality is the subjective one.  We’re Welsh, British, or English because we choose to be, not because the law says so, and not because any of those things are so clearly defined that we can objectively be placed into one or other category.  And there’s nothing stopping people from identifying with more than one of those categories – indeed, very many people in Wales do indeed see themselves as both Welsh and British; two different but overlapping nationalities which don’t have to be in conflict.  Whilst one can point to some common factors such as geography, place of birth, history, and language as indicators of the circumstances which give rise to a feeling of national identity, there are probably as many different definitions of the word ‘Welsh’ as there are people who consider themselves such.
Where problems often arise is when people attempt to project their own definition of national characteristics and that which constitutes nationality onto others, as if there is an objective definition; which brings us back to Holland, as well as to those who are always banging on about ‘British’ values.  Clearly, feelings of nationality will play a part in the outcome of the vote on September 18th, which is both natural and inevitable.  But somehow, I don’t think that telling the Scots that the Beatles are an emblem of all that’s best about the union will hold much sway.  The only surprising thing is that anyone should think that it would.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Solidarity in drowning

One of the better arguments used by the ‘Better Together’ campaign in Scotland is that many of the problems faced by Scotland aren’t unique to them; they’re problems faced by many other parts of the UK, including Wales.  It’s a good point, but it does rather invite the question which one of the audience raised during the second Salmond-Darling debate – ‘if we’re better together, why aren’t we better now?’
Whilst in principle, the idea that we can more effectively tackle problems collectively using the strength of the whole, is entirely credible, the notion is fatally undermined by the empirical evidence, which is that the problems are simply not being tackled.  Staying together means being bound to an economy which is heavily biased towards the south east; and a mere change of government (Labour’s sub-text to this argument) doesn’t seem to make any difference in practice.
A variation on the argument is that put forward by Douglas Alexander last week, who said:
“The Nationalists peddle a misplaced cultural conceit that holds that everyone south of the Solway Firth is an austerity loving Tory.  Our friends, family and comrades in Wales, Northern Ireland and in great cities like Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester find no place in this notion.”
Leaving aside the gratuitous reference to cultural conceit, the underlying point is a valid one – England is not a homogeneous austerity loving country.  And perhaps nationalists should put up our hands to the occasional over-simplistic reference to ‘England’ as a whole, as though it was homogeneous.  It isn’t – but then neither are Wales and Scotland – and it’s a mistake to pretend that it is.  And there are plenty of supporters of austerity to be found easily enough in Wales and Scotland too.
What is true though is that, aggregated up to a total using the national boundaries within the UK, the English majority are rather more supportive of austerity than are the Welsh and Scottish majorities.  And that is reflected in election results.  It means that parts of the UK opposed to austerity can be, and are, outvoted by its supporters.  Part of the price which any of the UK’s countries or regions pays for remaining part of the union is an acceptance that we will often be outvoted.
But there’s something else in this argument as well, even if not always expressed quite as openly as this – is it right for Scotland to walk away from the problems of Wales, Northern Ireland and Northern England rather than working with them to seek change from which all of them will benefit?  It’s an interesting moral question, but there’s a danger that it ends up being an argument that Scots should not take responsibility for solving their own problems out of solidarity for those elsewhere who cannot or will not do likewise.  It's a bit like arguing that we must all drown together.
In any event – what would give most hope to those other parts of the UK: for Scotland to stay put so that all sink together in comradeship and solidarity, or for Scotland to demonstrate that there is another way?