Archive for category Economy

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 postmag.org. 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.

Labour and the SNP are out of touch

Over the weekend some Labour candidates wrote to the papers in support of cautious and gradual rail renationalisation. According to that same piece, “Ed Balls is said to be resistant to anything that would be portrayed by Labour’s opponents as anti-business or a lurch back to the pre-Thatcher era of nationalised industries.” And yet, at a hustings I attended, when the candidates were asked which of their own parties’ policies they would change, the Tory said, without hesitating, rail privatisation, and that he accepted it had been a disaster. Policy lurched right on this. Even many in the Tories think a moderate lean to the left now wouldn’t be a bad idea. But Labour remain just too timid.

As I read this weekend’s coverage I thought to myself about how great it would be if someone had some polling on this just lying around unpublished. Then I remembered that I did! As part of my ongoing polling series with Survation, the Daily Record and Dundee University’s Five Million Questions, last month we asked whether the Scottish public would like to see the train companies renationalised, and the result was 71% for, 29% against (excluding don’t knows: full figures yes 59%, no 24%, don’t know 17%). It’s like I cleverly saved the data for the May Day weekend.

So, by a factor of more than two to one, the Scottish people are to the left of the current positions held by both of our supposedly social-democratic parties. Which means, sadly, this popular policy is offered by only one of the Holyrood parties, the Greens. Much as it’s nice to have such another unique selling point, we’d be a lot more likely to see public control restored if one of the two larger parties felt inclined to outflank the other to the left and adopt a policy with such clear majority support.

While I was at it, I thought I’d establish how far the Scottish people want to see public control over the rest of the commanding heights of the economy. These were the results from Survation (summary table including don’t knows here).

Would like to see nationalised

Would not like to see nationalised

Royal Mail

 74%  26%

Gas and electricity companies

 72%  28%

Train companies

 71%  29%

Private prisons and prisoner transport services

 68%  32%

Bus services

 59%  31%

Airports

 49%  51%

Land-line phone companies

 47%  53%

High street / retail banks

 41%  59%

Investment banks

 36% 64%

Mobile phone operators

 29%  71%

It’s quite impressive, really, the scale to which the public are to the left of the SNP and the three Westminster parties. Clear majorities want to renationalise Royal Mail, the power companies, the train companies, the bus companies, and to end private prisons and prisoner transport. The only one from that list where any of those four parties is in line with public opinion is the SNP’s welcome commitment to bring Royal Mail back into public ownership. Ed Miliband gets slated for his policy to cap energy costs as if it’s too left-wing. The truth is it’s too timid and too impractical, and a massive majority of the public want to go much further and overturn the Thatcher-era electricity privatisations completely.

And beyond that, more than 40% of the Scottish public would even nationalise all the high street banks, those we don’t yet own. Despite no political party pushing renationalisation of BT as a monopoly landline operator (effectively those landline services would be close to free, given the true costs of operating them now), the majority against this idea is slim. It’s hardly surprising opinion is divided: we traded one pretty incompetent nationalised industry for several pretty incompetent private firms. Personally if we must have incompetent phone companies I’d at least prefer vast private profits weren’t being made from us.

Overall, though, this is what a radically under-served left-leaning electorate looks like. We know the Tories and the Lib Dems will always be wrong on public ownership: but what excuse do Labour and the SNP have?

Londoners and Leithers, struggling together

Ocean terminal – More shops than ships

Walking around Westfield Statford City, a sweeping arc of restaurant chains and pretend outdoor highstreets with speakers pumping out Rihanna to keep the shoppers moving, you see a sports shop with England’s Wayne Rooney in the window. In front of Wayne (who is just a Wayne-sized poster) is the new England shirt, and around it in a neon crest is the motto ‘Risk Everything.’

I’m not an expert on  life guidance, but ‘risk everything’ strikes me as a particularly bad motivational slogan unless you’re on the Rangers board or are a compulsive gambler. It’s definitely a long way from the ‘work hard and you can achieve your dreams’ rhetoric espoused by Michael Owen in the popular Children’s BBC series Zero to Hero. In the latter, Owen appeared out of a lifesize poster to give the show’s young protagonist pep talks. In Westfield Stratford City Wayne bursts forth, and he seems to be asking me to remortgage my house and put the money on the ‘orses.

The particular piece of London where Westfield have set up shop(s) is a footballing heartland, with West Ham and Leyton Orient within spitting distance of the Waitrose, John Lewis and Body Shop outlets of new Stratford. This is what Glasgow City Council hope the new East End will turn into (just as was the ambition with new Leith and the rather forlorn Ocean Terminal), but you need not go far to find people with little to lose.

Fifteen minutes away on the Docklands Light Railway and you are in Beckton, the end of the line. Step off the train and there is a flat vista of car parks and slip roads ventilated by the stiff breeze of the Thames estuary. Across the street is a huge single-story ASDA, a car park surrounding a pretend shopping street where all the outlets are owned by the supermarket. In the window of the supermarket pharmacy is a display made in the run up to the 2012 Olympics by local school children. Eagerly painted flags hang in stasis over magazine collages of athletes and football stars. Presumably they’re still there because nothing has yet come forth to replace them, as if the anticipation just before the event were the high point. It is that kind of promise that can sustain people, and then comes the long tail.  Perhaps not risking everything, but investing everything in nothing is what the people of East London’s outer rim have done. The yuppie flats are changing the skyline in Stratford, but in Beckton the flags still hang limply, sealed off from the Thames breeze by plate glass.

In Scotland, the flags are all one colour. As the referendum approaches the Saltire has taken on a different significance for many people. The 18 September is the day the events kick off and Scotland undergoes regeneration on a national scale. An awful lot of people are investing their hopes for the future in a few short months. The bigger risk is not that independence won’t be achieved, but that its execution will fail to have the transformative effect its most ardent supporters promise and believe. In 2015, as money floods into Edinburgh from around the world, will the country look much different to the single parent dragging their shopping to the car at the ASDA in Newcraighall in the January wind? Will Leith’s Yes posters and fly-posted socialist battle-cries flap in the breeze as Edinburgh’s West End gears up for cheap credit, Dublin style, or will something good be made to come of it? If you’re asking people to risk everything, you need to make sure every one of those people sees the transformation their support deserves.

Let’s make a low carbon Scotland a high priority

A guest post today from Dr Sam Gardner, Head of Policy at WWF Scotland: thanks Sam!

5037469308_0718473d8d_bThe UK Committee on Climate Change’s most recent progress report under the Scottish Climate Change Act offers a useful assessment of where we are on our journey towards a low carbon Scotland. It highlights good progress in power generation and an increase in insulation rates, while at the same time reminding us this goal remains a long way off.  Yes, as WWF has documented, there has been excellent progress on renewable electricity but many other sectors need the same level of commitment and focus if the full benefits of a low carbon future are to be realised – across the transport, housing, land-use and waste sectors.

As the report recommends a renewed focus across the Scottish economy is required if our position as a global climate leader is to stand up to scrutiny and the benefits of a low carbon future are to be secured for Scotland. The need for action grows more compelling all the time. This week, the World Meteorological Organisation in their State of the Climate Report, stated that 13 of the 14 warmest years on record occurred this century. In a few days the IPCC will spell out the ever more worrying impacts of a changing climate.

So what is there more to do? The energy efficiency of Scotland’s homes continues to demand attention with the CCC making clear that “substantial additional policy effort by the Scottish Government will be necessary if it is to achieve its insulation and fuel poverty targets”.  Scotland’s homes are exposed to unpredictable weather which means emissions can rise by 15% one year and fall by 21% the next.  If we are to protect our homes from cold snaps and rising gas prices then we need to increase the loft insulation in over 30% of our homes, install cavity wall insulation in 600 000 homes and tackle the many homes needing solid wall insulation, all before 2020.  A transformation of this scale creates jobs (approx. 10 000 according to research for WWF), saves households money and helps tackle the scourge of fuel poverty.  Key to accelerating this programme will be the introduction of regulations for minimum energy efficiency standards and acting on the CCC’s advice that an increase in funding by the Scottish Government is needed given the cuts to the UK ECO programme.

Its no great surprise that the transport sector is another area flagged by the CCC where ‘more needs to be done’.  Transport emissions are the same now as they were in 1990 and there is little prospect of that improving given Scottish Transport’s own predictions that emissions are set to increase.  The CCC repeats its call from previous reports to get behind demand management transport measures and develop and fund a continuation of the Smarter Choices Smarter Places programme that was trialled in seven towns and cities across Scotland between 09 and 2012.  If we want to enjoy the benefits of improved air quality, safer streets and lower emissions we can’t afford to wait until 2018 when the Scottish Government’s climate action plan says the nationwide rollout will commence.

The Scottish Government’s recently published draft heat generation policy has been given renewed importance by the UK CCC’s conclusion that ‘even if all the projects in the pipeline went ahead and were operational by 2020’ we would still miss our heat target.  WWF’s recent renewable heat report outlines steps to be taken to accelerate both district heating and support the uptake of individual property heating technologies like air source heat pumps.

Worryingly, the CCC poses two options for meeting the targets in future: either identify additional effort to meet them, or amend, – or essentially, lower, the targets. This is suggested because changes in the greenhouse gas emissions inventory – the baseline – now means that we effectively have a 47% target rather than a 42% target to meet by 2020.  There are a host of reasons for not amending the targets, not least the signal it would send to other nations aspiring to legislate on climate change.  Having rightly attracted the attention of the world for our Climate Act, it would send a very poor message if we were to choose to lower the targets instead of identifying additional effort.  With so many policy levers still to be exercised, amending targets would simply divert attention from the efforts to deliver better housing, better transport and cleaner energy. For all the progress that Scotland has made so far, now is not the time to take the foot off the accelerator on our low carbon journey. Let’s not start to undermine the hard fought long term stability that the Act provides.

For the love of a safer, cleaner, future for all, lets throw our weight behind delivering a low carbon future and ensure we fulfil the promise Scotland made when it passed the Climate Change Act five years ago.

What’s the weather like in Montenegro?

MONTENEGROThe latest round of “positive campaigning” from the Westminster parties centres again on the currency. It’s clear they’ve decided it’s the SNP’s weak spot, and they want to hammer on it. So now all three of Westminster’s parties of government have declared (or will declare, so the BBC have been briefed) that an independent Scotland would be barred from the SNP’s preferred approach, a formal currency union with the rUK.

On one level this is a trap the SNP have laid for themselves. Their policy has essentially evolved like this: “Yey Euro! No, wait, the Euro’s collapsing. Shit. What shall we do? Well, we could have our own currency. But that sounds scary. What’s the only other option? Keep the pound. Phew. Sounds safe.”

A better approach would clearly have been to say “well, on day one Scotland still continue to use the pound, as is normal when countries achieve independence, and it will be for the Scottish people to decide whether they prefer to move towards an independent currency, either as an end point or as a step towards the Euro, or to seek an ongoing currency union with rUK”. Not least because then the post-2016 Scottish Government would have a specific democratic mandate for a sterling zone if that was indeed the outcome of the election. Fear of uncertainty is why this is off the table. But if you want to know what happens after a future election, you’d better get used to uncertainty for obvious reasons.

Given that formal currency union would require Westminster’s assent, though, today’s stramash was entirely predictable (Jeff saw something similar coming in November 2011, although I disagree with some of his conclusions). Perhaps the SNP genuinely like the sight of Tory/Labour/Lib Dem bullying on this issue. It certainly looks ugly, but I can see Osborne’s logic: like it or not, this announcement does take the SNP’s preferred option off the table. They can’t keep saying “once we’ve had a Yes vote Westminster will have to take Scotland seriously”. Well, they can keep saying it if they wish, but it sounds increasingly ridiculous and practically as petulant as the Westminster parties’ position. Strategically, the Tories are correct to assume that this mess must reduce the chance of a Yes vote, and of course it’s not just them. With all three of the biggest parties at Westminster now publicly opposed to currency union, the SNP are effectively relying on persuading one or more of them changing their mind. Not a solid basis for the last seven months of a referendum campaign.

The reality is that on 24 March 2016, the SNP’s proposed independence day, we absolutely will be using sterling in Scotland’s shops. Our bank accounts will still be denominated in sterling. The pre-dissolution SNP Government has no mandate to change that: it’d be utterly undemocratic to do so prior to the election which kicks off on that day. And then on 7 May 2016, when Scotland wakes up with its first independent government, we’ll still be using sterling no matter what. That government will have had a policy (or policies, if it’s a coalition) on the currency, but the starting point will be the pound in your pocket.

And the basis for the pound in your pocket won’t be a currency union. It can’t be. Even if Westminster were entirely relaxed about it, the SNP don’t have a mandate to establish a currency union in the September 2014-March 2016 interregnum and to tie future Scottish Governments’ hands. We’ll be using the pound like Montenegro uses the Euro, or (as Jeff pointed out) like Cambodia uses the dollar. We won’t have a seat on the Bank of England’s (!) Monetary Policy Committee. Scottish budgets won’t have to go to Westminster for oversight, or vice versa, as formal currency union would require. Nothing will have changed.

At that point, if that new independent Scottish Government has been elected on a platform of pursuing currency union, they can get on and pursue it and hope that the post-2015 rUK Government would support it. The only easy route to co-operation on this would be if Labour somehow managed to win both elections while losing the referendum. But if currency union is sought and rUK Ministers stick to today’s line, there would only be two options for those future Scottish Ministers: the Montenegro way, or the Montenegro way moving towards our own currency like a normal independent state. That way we could manage our affairs without our economy still being skewed towards London and without our fiscal policy still being skewed towards austerity. An independent currency seems almost inevitable, especially in the longer term. Or it would do if the Yes campaign wasn’t bogged down by the SNP’s short-sightedness on this issue. They need to think again or they risk jeopardising the recent progress that’s been made towards a Yes vote.