Archive for July, 2016

Scotland and Europe

July 19, 2016

To work out Scotland’s place as a nation and within Europe we need perhaps to look at where we are now, and then where we could be going.

Scotland has had its own Parliament since 1999. Since then it has taken on an increased range of powers in areas devolved to it (including health, housing, law and order for example). As a result of the 2014 Independent vote, it is acquiring powers to set its own rates of taxation (which it has so far not used) and the ability to put in place its own benefits. It does not control immigration, defence or foreign policy. In the 2016 EU referendum 62% of Scots who voted, voted to remain, making it by some margin the strongest pro-EU nation within the UK.

Scotland feels different to England. The transport infrastructure works (when Scotrail aren’t on strike, and even then it still better than it is in England). Healthcare has not been subject to the repeated changes that England has suffered from, but the health of Scots is in need of improvement. School education has fallen behind where it ought to be. Higher education is free for Scots, creating a very distinctive feel to undergraduate courses that is less consumerist than in England. Towns and cities are less divided in Scotland – you see the full range of human experience much more readily than the more segregated approach down south.

And of course, Scotland is significantly more pro-EU than England. This might be down to the SNP managing to get its voters out in ways the English political parties failed to do. It might be due to Scotland being a beneficiary of EU funding (although that didn’t stop Wales voting to leave). It might be due to the SNP managing to be a counter-voice to whatever is going on in England, and so voting EU in Scotland being about contrariness. I’d also like to think it is about a recognition that Scotland might actually be more European than England – and with that a sense that Scotland has the potential to be a great Social Democratic nation in ways that England seems to have long abandoned.

So what about the future? Well there are some issues. Scotland is in the UK, and the UK as a whole has voted to leave the EU. Yes, the vote was itself a failed attempt by the Conservatives to deal with their own militant anti-EU wing. Yes, it was a campaign that showed all the very worst aspects of our media and which demonstrated the paucity of our political discourse. My own view is that we really need a vote on the terms of any Brexit negotiation before leaving the EU, as that is the only way to actually compare EU membership with something tangible. But assuming we don’t get that, Scotland is going to exit the EU along with the UK.

The next logical step would be for Scotland to demand another independence referendum, and the first Minister has already indicated that, if she believes that is in the best interest of Scotland (and I think the clue might be in her Party’s name), then that should happen. I worry about independence because Scotland is a small nation, and it seems to me that much of what it seeks to achieve in terms of social justice depends on risk pooling that might need to work on a larger scale than its 5 million souls. Equally, I worry about Scotland not yet having a strong view of what it wants to be if separate from the rest of the UK.

One view, expressed by Sir Nicholas Macpherson, is that Scotland could become a low-tax, small-state economy. I hope this isn’t on the cards. Along with low-tax tends to come low-skill, huge job insecurity and an economy based upon being cheaper than anyone else. That seems to go directly against the words of our First Minister so far, and would also go against the grain of Scotland’s links with Europe.

Instead, an alternative is to look to Scandinavia and to work toward a high-skill, high-investment economy. A country that respects public services and invests in them. This is going to mean taxes go up. But I believe Scotland has the infrastructure – and the standard of living – to support this. Equally, if we are to address inequality and move towards social justice, there is little more powerful than progressive taxation to address that. It will mean significant investment in our schools and in improving health services, hopefully without the repeated drives to reorganise them seen in England. It will also mean devolving powers to local areas and giving them the resources to effect real change. This seems to me to be something Scotland can achieve if its government sets its mind to it. A distinctive anti-austerity message that is pro-European and very different to what is going on in England.

If Scotland is able to make a case in these terms, then I’m sure it would be welcomed into the EU in the future. But in the meantime Scotland can be European by remembering its links to European ideas of social justice and by putting in place a clear plan for achieving them. The Scottish Parliament already has sufficient powers to achieve this, so it can be done irrespective of any future independent referendum. It would also make a much stronger case for independence if Scotland was able to show itself to be even more different to England in terms of its approach to taxation, welfare and public investment, and through this difference, be able to show its concern for European social justice. Now that really would be a vision for Scotland in Europe.



The failures of our governments

July 7, 2016

In the wake of the long-awaited publication of the Chilcot inquiry in the decision to invade Irawq, the newspapers in the UK today are full of stories of government failure. Perhaps the most biting is the linking of the decision to invade with that of the generals of World War One – the suggestion that we are ‘Lions led by Donkeys’.

Chilcot has laid bare the decision-making style of the Blair government. We are left with the view that the decision to invade was made well before the government ever admitted it, and that the intelligence upon which it was based was deeply flawed. The report suggests that the invasion was premature, with other options still being available. It suggests that the process by which the legality of the invasion was established was not a good one, and asks questions about how Cabinet government was organised more generally. It expresses the strong view that there was no credible plan of what to do after the invasion.

Perhaps we need to locate this story in some context. First, the Blair government had done some pretty extraordinary things by 2003. Blair had intervened personally to get the Northern Irish peace process on track, and secured an historic agreement. Blair had also used his influence to get Clinton (and NATO) to get involved in the war in Kosova, and we should not forget that, even though that intervention was too late, Blair’s intervention saved many lives. After this, of course, came the election of a new US president who Blair appears to have been concerned to be seen to be working with. And the horrific events of 9/11.

One story of context, perhaps then, is of Blair, on the back of his successes in intervening abroad (and closer to home), coming to over-estimate his abilities. By 2002/3 he was not short of confidence, with foreign policy success to point to and a dominant electoral position at home. He was also establishing a relationship with a new president in a complex foreign policy environment. This was the era of policy ‘delivery’ – of being seen to get things done.

The factor I think that is most concerning though is the ability of the Blair government to be able to make foreign policy largely as it saw fit. The is a structural feature of the UK Parliamentary system – with a large Parliamentary majority, the government has considerable power to do as it likes. We have few checks and balances (the Queen can in theory refuse to sign Bills, but to do so would provoke a constitutional crisis, and the House of Lords can be eventually over-ruled if it objects).

I’m afraid the decision to invade Iraq is the most awful representation of a more general problem. Our governments, if they have any kind of majority, are able to pass really dreadful legislation and put in place really awful policy. Parliament isn’t good at stopping bad decisions because the whip system forces MPs to vote in line with their parties rather than really scrutinising the proposed changes. Equally, we push far too much business through Parliament for decisions to be subject to sufficient scrutiny. My own research suggests that the debates that do take place are not deliberative in the sense of trying to actually work to find the best policy solution. Instead they are often partisan and superficial.

The decision to invade Iraq did not involve legislation, but was debated in Parliament. The debate was held at the last minute, and, we now know, the decision to invade was based on poor intelligence. It is hard to see how this resulted in good decision-making.

The more general problem then, is that government is often able to pass poor legislation which isn’t scrutinised well. Governments aren’t made to work through the available options. They aren’t forced to for research evidence. New Secretaries of State often push through hugely expensive changes and reorganisations with little other than faith underpinning them – look at the changes to the NHS, to the benefits system, and to schools. These have cost billions and billions and were changes often based on little more than someone in power having a big idea.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps we need to reverse the logic of our legislative system. One approach would be a precautionary one where any changes would have to be shown, through research, to be necessary beyond any reasonable doubt, before being legislated for. Another approach would be to restrict government to a limited number of Bills per year, but to structurally ensure that they were debated fully, based on research based on pilots, and with free votes for MPs who were expected to not only engage with the debates, but show that they did so through their contributions. That would move us rather closer to something approaching a deliberative process.

Such processes would almost certainly have avoided the invasion of Iraq. But they would also save billions of pounds in careless and reckless changes to public services and the country, very little of which actually results in much by the way of benefit.