Archive for category Constitution

So, what’s the big idea?

A guest post today from about the principle of democracy from Duncan Thorp, who has previously blogged for us about social enterprise. Thanks Duncan!

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 13.10.22It’s kind of reassuring that regardless of the referendum outcome, a debate has opened up about the kind of Scotland we want. While visions differ greatly, it’s good that we’re moving slightly beyond just two stark and opposing factions, something I believe most people want to happen.

Though this “new Scotland” thinking is generally by pro-independence campaigners, there’s still a bit of debate on the pro-union side too. Common Weal, the various political parties, Radical Independence Campaign, commentators like Henry McLeish, Better Together, Nordic Horizons, think tanks like Reform Scotland – all are talking about the kind of Scotland we want. How much of this influences people and is talked about in homes, pubs and workplaces is of course another question.

But in terms of the progressive side, how much of this thinking is new or original? How much still relies on the old debates of public vs private, state spending vs the market, workers vs owners etc? Though the old ideologies have clearly failed, the “smash the state” mentality as a solution perhaps still dominates.

But it shouldn’t be about who controls or does things with the state – it’s about who makes all of the decisions everywhere. We certainly need community and we definitely need society – but these are not synonymous with the state. Statism doesn’t work. Using the state so it’s in the “correct” hands is the actual problem, in fact it often results in human tragedies.

But if not the old ideologies, what exactly is the so-called big idea? The big idea is democracy. Practical examples include empowerment through the local community ownership of land, buildings and other assets, community and social enterprise and the practise of authentic localism and autonomy.

This is about street-level democracy, neighbourhood welfare and a welfare society, human rights for all, comprehensive ethical choices by consumers, employee-owned businesses as standard, community-owned renewable energy and local food independence. Doing things for ourselves. All this can be driven forward by equal access for all to advanced, eco-aware technologies. A constant, systematic spreading of this democracy can replace narrow nationalism and other false identity politics on all sides.

But who will lead and implement this democracy in the real world and how? A political leader? A campaign group? An agency? A special vanguard? A government? None of the above. There’s no mythical Revolution Day or future salvation, it’s much more subtle and current than that. It’s simply the role of everyone, acting right here and now as individuals, in our daily lives and together as people.

In effect “the big idea” must be to change who actually decides on all the big ideas. Scottish independence is hardly radical, perhaps it’s just a logical democratic step. But perhaps there are other paths too, like radical autonomy for Fife, Glasgow or Orkney. Extending democracy should be the measure for every policy decision.

In any case, leaving it up to so-called decision-makers and policy-makers is a dead end, it’s the responsibility of all of us. It’s not complicated or some unrelenting battle against the state: the big idea is simply the building of freedom and democracy in every area of life.

Our Islands Our Future

Thanks to Neil Gray for today’s guest post. Neil is an Orcadian, who for the last six years has worked in the Scottish Parliament for Alex Neil MSP. He is also active in the Yes campaign in West Lothian.

Orkney in the gloamingRegardless of the referendum result, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles have guaranteed themselves greater recognition at a government level than ever before, thanks to the Our Islands Our Future campaign.

Last June the three island authorities saw an opportunity within the independence referendum conversation and formed a joint task force to lobby the Scottish and UK governments for enhanced decision making which would enrich island life. This week, with the publication of the Scottish Government’s proposals, that campaign won the proverbial watch with the promise of all Crown Estate revenues being returned to the isles should Scotland vote Yes in September.

That is the big prize for the isles in the 82-page Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities, but there are other proposals that will happen regardless of the referendum result.

However, clearly it is the Crown Estate pledge which is the most significant proposal for three very important reasons; the economy, the environment and for the politics of the referendum.

The Crown Estate controls the seabed out to 12 nautical miles as well as having significant land holdings and raises revenues from aquaculture, harbours, fishing and leasing the seabed for energy projects. It is notoriously difficult to extract figures from the organisation, but it is estimated that returning the aquaculture finance alone could be worth millions to the three local authorities. Regaining 100% control of that level of finance is a potentially massive windfall for the respective island economies given their growing renewables capacity. It will give Orkney and Shetland in particular an income stream bonus to allow them to plan and invest for life after oil. We have already seen some communities take stakes in renewables projects as a form of investment, with the returns being spent on community resources. Devolving the Crown Estate revenues will free up more capital for communities to invest in projects which can accrue further growth and provide greater scope for higher spending on public services. This will see our natural resources really work for the people. In remote and rural areas, where the delivery of public services can be a costly challenge, this could breathe new life into communities that heavily depend on them.

Providing cheaper, faster and more frequent transport and communications links would be obvious places to start. The Island Councils could also use the guaranteed revenue streams from the aquaculture and other developments already in place to do the UK government’s job for them and lay the much needed subsea grid interconnector.

By controlling the revenues from the seabed and Crown lands, the island communities will have an even greater vested interest in seeing the renewables sector boom. This draws obvious benefits, not just for our island groups, but for the whole of Scotland, as we strive to achieve our ambitious and world leading climate change targets. The Northern and Western Isles have massive potential for wind, wave and tidal power and we all have an interest in that taking off. With the European Marine Energy Centre based in Orkney giant strides are already being made into the commercialisation of marine renewables. The added impetus of controlling our own destiny and directing our resources for our own benefit, could be a game changing moment for this fledgling industry.

It is little wonder then that the Scottish Government’s proposals have been warmly welcomed by Cllrs Heddle, Robinson and Campbell, who have led the Our Islands Our Future campaign. Politically this could also be very significant in the referendum campaign. The reactions of the three constituency representatives for the Northern Isles – Liberal Democrats Liam McArthur, Tavish Scott and Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael – hint that they may have been outflanked and that the Crown Estate proposals will not be matched by the UK government. This is hugely significant as the Liberal Democrats have talked about the iniquity of the Crown Estate for time immemorial, but have allowed an SNP government to finally promise what their constituents have long desired. The line from the Liberals that this was a “referendum bribe” by the Scottish Government has not resonated, with one influential and politically unaligned Orcadian telling me it was not just weak, but “terrible” and that the last few days have been a “tour de force” for the First Minister as he “sliced the ground from under the unionist camp”. As a Yesser this is obviously welcome news to me, but these proposals were drawn together because devolving these powers is the right thing to do – by our islands and by Scotland.

It will be interesting to see what the UK government, which is due to publish its proposals soon, promises to deliver for our island communities if there is a No vote. What we do know is that the islanders have already embraced what this referendum campaign is about and started to look at what they want to see their communities looking like in the future. They already know that the Scottish Government will give them a far greater say even with a No vote. And while some islanders may not quite be ready to return a Yes majority, there is already a sense that decisions about their communities are best made by the people who live there. The decision islanders have on the 18th September is whether they can match the ambition the Scottish Government has for them, or whether after coming this far they retreat back from greater local decision making.

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Some different ideas to go with your referendum: Scotland 44

scotland44-page001Better Nation does not have a publishing arm, and despite ideas of a Better Nation film being mooted over some drinks last year the realities of living a normal life bit. I have not however, been sitting idly on my hands for the past eighteen months, instead putting most of my effort into the Post Collective publishing project.

The Post Collective was set up last year to provide a forum for progressive green journalism in Scotland. Made up of a merry collection of academics, sometime journalists, economists and science professionals  the project regularly writes about contemporary Scotland, science, culture, politics and democracy on Post also publishes printed books and magazines, and though we do not have any clear view on the referendum itself as a group, we decided to try and make a collective contribution. The result is a forthcoming book about the future: Scotland 44.

Scotland 44 is not designed to argue for independence, instead it sets out a number of different possibilities for Scotland’s next thirty years that would improve the lives of Scottish people in areas from how we build our cities to how we fund the arts, manage information and privacy and generate energy. Arguing for independence as an end in itself will not do much to change Scotland without the will or ideas to significantly restructure the way the country works, and a no vote is no excuse for political stasis from either side.

That said, independence would seem to be the most opportune moment to rip it all up and start again, including an areas the independence debate is yet to touch on. One of Scotland 44’s writers, the urbanist Stacey Hunter of Edinburgh University, will for example be writing about an area the Scottish Government already has full control of. Could independence mean an end to the SNP’s love of suburban estates and motorways over communities and sustainable transport?

And how can power be taken from the Scottish Parliament and given back to people? What would decentralisation mean for democracy and the economy? How do you come up with an arts policy for a nation as diverse as Scotland? Who gets to be Scottish, and what will Scotland in 2044 mean compared with the Scotland of 2014 and 1984? If you could put science and education at the centre of society, how would it work? What does citizenship mean in post-2014 Scotland?

These bigger questions transcend a decision between Yes and No and demand answers from ourselves as much as they do politicians. If you want to pre order a copy of Scotland 44 or find out about and contribute to the ongoing work of the Post project you can do so here.

Selling out to the lowest bidder: Serco and the SNP

One of the things the SNP like to talk about at length is their commitment to ridding Scotland of nuclear weapons. The anti-nuclear stance is one of the few pieces of political radicalism, along with free education, to have remained in the SNP manifesto pack. It is then all the more surprising that the same government is happy to award contracts to an outsourcing company actively engaged in the maintenance of the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal. Serco, accurately described as ‘the biggest company you’ve never heard of’ are one of the largest outsourcers in the world, running public contracts in myriad areas from transport to weapons technology, data management and prisons. Late last year they were the subject of an investigation by the UK Serious Fraud Office  for their work electronically tagging prisoners (along with private security contractor G4S). Through a partnership contract, Serco Denholm, the company also provides a range of services at HMNB Clyde, of which the Faslane nuclear base is part. The contract with the Warship Support Agency, an arm of the MoD, includes support to the movement and training excercises of Vanguard nuclear submarines. The Faslane submarines are the delivery mechanism for the UK’s roaming Trident nuclear deterrent. Only people within the SNP can say whether anybody failed to see the link between a lucrative contract for the Caledonian Sleeper and Serco’s nuclear and defence work, but it makes the SNP hardline on public services and moral superiority look a little weaker. Serco already run the ferries to Shetland and Orkney after winning the contract from publicly-owned Caledonian MacBrayne a few years ago, banking £254m pounds in the process. The new Caledonian Sleeper franchise also sees an injection of £100m of public money toward new trains, to be owned by a private rolling stock leasing company.

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right..”

Today has been a bad day for the indyref debate, with weak arguments from governments in Edinburgh and London, and a shared frame that could have been designed between them to drive down turnout. The offences aren’t the same, mind: from the SNP side we have speculative handwaving designed to appeal to pure selfishness, while on the Coalition side we see downright dishonesty and misrepresentation.

To start with the latter, the UK Government put out information about the “cost of independence”, based on research from the LSE’s Professor Patrick Dunleavy. The data in it was then utterly destroyed by one Professor Patrick Dunleavy, as initially reported in the Financial Times and now belatedly elsewhere. The doomed Danny Alexander claimed the costs would be £2.7bn, then rowed back to £1.5bn, about seven and a half times the upper end of the Professor’s estimates, and ten times the lower end.

Here’s a bit more from the Lib Dems on what the Chief Secretary to the Treasury had to say.

In his speech, Danny pointed out five factors that would affect Scotland’s finances if it were to become independent:

1. New institutions would have to be set up in Scotland, costing the country millions of pounds.
2. Scotland would have to pay higher interest rates to borrow, resulting in around £500 million per year in additional debt interest costs.
3. The Scottish government’s new policies would cost at least £1.6 billion every year.
4. Revenues from oil and gas production would fall by around 95% over the next 20 years due to the decline in North Sea oil production.
5. The shrinking number of working age people would have to pay for Scotland’s growing number of old age pensioners.

Danny mentioned that all of these factors would be worth £1400 per person in Scotland each year for the next 20 years, something that would be easily avoided by staying in the UK.

Let’s look at those all in a little detail.

1. Clearly true, although “millions” is a bit of a further row-back from the billions they were initially claiming. £150m-£200m isn’t a lot of setup costs, to use the Professor’s figures: it’s about an eighth of the money Scottish Ministers are already squandering on a single unnecessary road bridge. No biggie.
2. Unknown and unknowable prior to independence. Just don’t.
3. Depends on what kind of Scottish Government we elect in 2016, and if the Lib Dems still exist then they’ll be free to propose a low-tax war-on-the-poor style system for Scotland akin to the one they’ve helped the Tories deliver in reserved areas. So therefore unknowable.
4. Utter unmitigated bullshit: yes, oil and gas revenues will drop sharply from around 2016, they are already well below the 1999 peak (see graph below), and cannot in any case be a sustainable basis for a future Scottish economy. But aside from the last of those, the issue here is geology, and staying in the Union can’t undo the fact that oil is finite and we’ve already extracted most of it from the North Sea.
5. Again, it depends. Will an independent Scotland stick to the kind of anti-immigrant policies the Tories and Lib Dems are delivering, or will the more positive position shared by the SNP and the Greens win out? Can’t have this both ways, Danny.

The offences on the other side are less glaring, and not blatantly dishonest, but still, in the interests of fairness, they have to be pointed out. Here’s the argument. It relies on speculative better productivity gains in Scotland than in the rest of the UK (the equivalent of the empty politicians’ call for “efficiency savings”), speculative better employment rates than the rest of the UK, and speculative Scottish population increases.

All of these are the same sort of unsubstantiated arguments as Danny’s final point above (much as I hope an independent Scotland will welcome more immigration), and it’s also tactically poor. Confusing independence with some sketchy estimates of outcomes from vague policies won’t persuade people to vote Yes. Independence is about the people of Scotland making our own decisions, not it being set in stone now, even if it could be.

Incidentally, on page 18 of the full document, the Scottish Government uses 2016-17 as the reference year for oil receipts. As per industry research from May 2013, that’s around the post-1999 peak. Their figures on page 26 are, shall we say, bullish.

oil-chartAnyway, the document is full of dubious hypotheticals, and reads like an expert group of civil servants weighing something they can’t see while keeping a thumb firmly on the scales. Sometimes it goes beyond that. Imagine using the word “will” here rather than the word “would”: “Higher productivity growth will boost public sector revenues as increased economic output leads to higher tax receipts” (p36).

Furthermore, people aren’t stupid, or most of them aren’t. They know that chat about whether we’ll be better or worse off, by either side, especially when associated with exciting round numbers, is mere empty speculation. It’s also not what motivates people, from what I understand of the focus groups that have been conducted. Even assuming people want to sound more progressive when being polled, fairness is much more persuasive. Oh, and so too is “decisions will be made in Scotland, by voters in Scotland”: much more attractive than “here’s how it’s all going to be, sod the electorate”.

Conjecture from Yes, downright lies from No: the Scottish public deserves better than this.