Archive for category Europe

The Scottish Greens’ Nordic Future

Patrick Harvie's Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities from Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

Patrick Harvie’s Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities to Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

The Scottish Greens’ conference in Inverness last weekend was dominated by one theme, and one question. Why is Scotland not like its neighbouring Northern European countries in terms of living standards, life expectancy, wellbeing and sustainability?

Three of the plenary speakers chose variations on the theme and all of them spoke glowingly about the potential for moving away from the Anglo-Saxon obsession with big economics and moving toward a government and financial system more similar to Scotland’s Northern European peers.

The effervescent Lesley Riddoch has made it her mission in recent years to persuade Scotland of the advantages of decentralisation, localism, empowerment and Nordic levels of public service provision. In the Greens she has obviously found a receptive audience. She was joined by Mike Danson  from Heriot Watt University whose time seems to have finally come after years of proposing alternative economic models of Scotland, and Robin McAlpine of the Reid Foundation fronting the work done by a team of academics and researchers to develop a blueprint for an autonomous Scottish parliament.

The Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project is gaining momentum, and Robin McAlpine paid the Greens a compliment in saying that they already have the policies to make it work. The challenge lies in convincing the SNP and Labour of the validity of such an approach or making sure that the Greens gain enough seats at the next Holyrood election to at least begin to implement it in government with another party.

Talk of the Arc of Prosperity may have vanished from the lips of the First Minister, but over in the Green and Independent corner of the chamber the vision is very much alive, and it is hard to argue against Scotland pursuing such a course when all the evidence suggests it would lead to a decidedly better country for everybody.

The list of potential polices is almost endless, but the Greens are committed to increasing investment in strategic public transport infrastructure, re-regulation of bus services to give local authorities more say, increased basic wages to both help people and increase tax yields for investment in services, municipal energy companies and education reforms based on Finland’s proven globally leading example.

The Common Weal project is a welcome addition to the Scottish political scene with its stress on common consensus rather than socialist revolution, and its use of existing similar states to Scotland which clearly illustrate that it is possible to tackle some of Scotland’s endemic problems in an inclusive and democratic way.

The Greens now find themselves in the strange position of having a more cohesive and coherent vision for Scotland’s future than almost any other party in Holyrood, the SNP included. Next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the way to pick up your kids from an overpriced nursery and worrying about the 8.2 per cent price rise your energy company have just foisted upon you, take a moment to consider that Scotland has an alternative modern future ready and waiting.

The North is rising

I’ve been somewhat sceptical as to some of the overtures being made toward the Nordic countries by the SNP, though their engaging with the prospect of a Nordic Scotland keeps them a step ahead of the Labour party who ideologically might be the expected natural proponents of such a project. The leadership of the SNP itself remains coy about the big scary tax word which overshadows  the Nordic debate – a colleague of mine remarked that every single debate and panel discussion they have been involved in on Nordic economy has inevitably ended with the depressing assertion that you’d never get people to agree to even minor tax increases.

It is then particularly welcome that a group of academics, not Holyrood researchers, have come up with a blueprint for taking Scotland to a new developmental level which it could never possibly achieve under existing Labour, Conservative or SNP policy. The basics are reported here in the Herald, and some of the central pillars of Nordic economy and welfarism have been covered here on Better Nation.

It presents a rather interesting challenge to the constitutional referendum, in that it is a vision for Scotland which has not been directly produced by the Scottish National Party. The usual tendency is for any government or party-produced document to be dismissed as selective propaganda, and often with good reason. You’ll struggle to find a government policy primer in either Westminster or Edinburgh that would hold up to some critical peer review.

What the SNP need to get used to is the idea that Yes Scotland is not a vehicle for SNP policy but for the harnessing of a national appetite for change and innovation. It has improved considerably from when it was first conceived and is starting to find its own voice, which can only be a good thing and which will help to dismantle the myth that an autonomous parliament in Edinburgh is the sole intellectual property of the skirts and suits in the Holyrood tower. The job of the SNP is, after all, to govern the country well with the powers they have. It is up to people to decide what the country could and should look like in the future. A non-governmental vision for an independent state is exactly the kind of thing needed to articulate the opportunity afforded by a small state with a robust and transparent democratic process.

Men for independence

KILTSThe SNP’s six-man shortlist for the European elections was announced at the weekend. Sorry, not quite: five-man and one-woman. In 2009, the last time the SNP selected for Europe, they managed exactly the same poor gender ratio. In 2004 they selected eight candidates, of whom only the seventh was a woman. In that election Janet Law would have been elected only if the SNP had won every single MEP slot going.

Their list for 1999 was somewhat better, with three women out of eight, although again none were in a winnable position. You have to go back almost twenty years to the pre-PR days of 1994 to find the last time an SNP woman was elected to the European Parliament: the indomitable Winnie Ewing, of course.

There’s been plenty of chatter about the gender gap on the referendum, and rightly so. Yesterday’s figures showed 47% of men in favour of independence compared to just 25% of women. What with the European elections coming just a few months before that vote (which is therefore inevitably being seen already as a mock referendum rather than the election of mere MEPs), you might have assumed the SNP would have taken this opportunity to select a decent gender-balanced list.

There’s still a second stage to go, of course. Predictions of Alyn Smith’s deselection following the NATO debacle might yet effectively come true. Questions might be asked about Hudghton’s total absence of public profile. It’s possible that the one woman on the list, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, will come out ahead of those two sitting MEPs, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Even if she does, it’s no good for the sexist old guard in any party to claim they just select on merit when over and over again they keep picking more men than women. After four selections in a row, it’s not possible to claim that’s a coincidence, especially when more than 70% of the MSPs the SNP elected in 2011 were also blokes. The SNP do in fact have a lot of first-class women, both activists and those already elected, and more of them should have got the nod here, through a formal gender balance mechanism if necessary. It can be done.

Why do I care? First, I want to live in a society where the best people are selected and elected, not one where being a bloke comes with a massive advantage – and yes, I know there are other inequalities to consider too. Second, until the referendum’s won or lost, that vote is the prism through which almost all of Scottish politics is examined, and I want a win. How the SNP behave is inextricably and unfortunately tied to public perceptions of independence itself, and results like this make it look like a future Scotland will be a business-as-usual boys’ club.

Declaration of interest: Natalie McGarry, of this parish, was one of the women not to make the cut, which I think is unfortunate. This post was all my own idea, and I have shown her it once complete only for any factual corrections.

Walk The Solidarity Talk


At Glasgow City Council Full Council today one of the issues debated- and finding a rare moment of relative harmony between bitter Labour and SNP factions – was that of the Bedroom Tax;  with the Labour Party and the SNP agreeing to an amendment asking Nicola Sturgeon to consider using Scottish Government powers to offset the worst effects of it.

All admirable sentiments, and worthwhile doing – after all it is the role of the Scottish Government to act in the best interests of the Scottish people – but can the Scottish Government always be expected to legislate to mitigate the worst effects of policy decisions taken at Westminster?

Evidently I am absolutely in favour of the Scottish Government intervening to protect the most vulnerable in Scottish society, and in fact I have some suggestions based on a huge amount of research I have been taking on the Bedroom Tax in my employed capacity. There are actions that the Scottish Government can take, and I am sure that all SNP MSPs and councillors will be pressing them to explore any and all suggested options.

In the first instance, Govan Law Centre has made suggestions about the reclassification of housing debt as a civil debt and treated as such in the same manner as any other civil debt; like council tax arrears, or utilities debt meaning that courts will not be forced to evict for non-payment as a first option. There are a number of problems with this suggestion; indeed as there are with many others, not least the fact that the most vulnerable in society will still be accumulating unmanageable debts, and that Housing Associations, and Councils as Social Landlords will be subject to huge gaps in funding and revenue stream. It is simply unacceptable to pass the problem on to Housing Associations and Councils without trying too to mitigate their funding gaps too.

That said, it is a mitigation which requires due consideration. Perhaps there are ways in which to make it workable with agreement between the Scottish Government, Councils and Housing Associations. It is only one of a few suggested options.

So whilst I fundamentally agree and urge the Scottish Government to do all it can, and further, I am not averse to utilising some existing but unused powers to do so, I have my concerns about the expectation that the Scottish Government is the line of last defence when the UK Government takes decisions which we deem unpopular, socially unjust or morally reprehensible.

That the Welfare Reform Act fits all of the above descriptions, and more, does not offset the fact that the Westminster Government is a democratically elected beast. We can quibble about the Tories going in to coalition with the Liberal Democrats not being the settled will of the United Kingdom voters until the cows come home, but, in my opinion, that is wholly disingenuous. Allow me the right to despise the Liberal Democrats the choice to enter a coalition which contravenes so many values which Liberal Democrats should hold dear whilst respecting their right to do so.

I support a reform of the First Past the Post system, and by dint, support a form of proportional representation. By their very definition, PR elections create the need for parties to negotiate coalitions.  This means compromise; and yes, if chosen, some parties will sell their souls to do so.  The Liberal Democrats did in the first Scottish Parliament where they abandoned their principles on free tuition fees – sound familiar? – To enter coalition with the Labour Party. However, many of those same voices clamouring for the same electoral change that I desire are prepared to criticise a coalition formed to govern because they dislike the hue of the parties who entered it. That, to me, is hypocrisy at best.  We either support coalition government as a compromise which is more inclusive of societal views, or we don’t. Perhaps I over simplify, but there it is.  This is a blog post, not a thesis.

The UK government has taken on the mantle of welfare reform which began under the previous Labour administration and is taking the decision to implement changes which, again in my opinion, undermine enshrined ECHR Article 8 on right to family life. Clearly by implementing the Bedroom Tax, the state is interfering with this right by preventing respite for carers, overnight access for parents with shared custody rights etc. But The United Kingdom electorate gave them the power to do so.

I have been to a number of the University of Glasgow Independence debates, and I obviously pay attention to social media and messaging which is coming from the “Better Together” camp and its partners in the Labour Party. A now constant refrain seems to be that asserting the right to independence is a betrayal of solidarity with fellow Brits in Salford, or Brixton, or Bradford who are also suffering from austerity measures. Indeed, as I sit here typing at the last of the University of Glasgow independence debates, I am listening to Willie Bain attempt to articulate the same point – very confusedly, as it happens.

It is beyond me that a constitutional settlement means that we cannot share solidarity with fellow human beings across the United Kingdom as we do those fellow world citizens across the globe. A point was made by a member of the audience last night that solidarity respects no borders. Choosing independence is asserting the right to self-determination; it is not an abandonment of humanity.

Another argument seems to be predicated on the basis that by choosing independence we consign England and Wales to eternal Conservative domination. This is as ridiculous as certain factions of the Yes campaign who believe that voting Yes means no more Tories.  It could be argued that a small c conservative party would have a small renaissance in an independent country, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, as the state, and the Left, needs to have checks and balance.

These shouldn’t be arguments which are made by either side. They are lazy and crass and entirely without empirical evidence. Blair’s landslide Labour Governments would have been elected regardless of the Scottish block voting. It England wants to vote Labour, it can and will. If England wants to vote Conservative, it can and will and we do not have the right to usurp their will. Staying in a union to subvert the voting will of the English people is entirely nonsensical and presumptuous and fundamentally undemocratic.

That the Labour party is simultaneously using the issue of solidarity with fellow Brits as a reason to vote no in the referendum whilst urging the Scottish Government to act in mitigation of the choices of the United Kingdom Government to offset a degree of the worst effects for the Scottish people only, smacks of double standards. That the powers retained by the United Kingdom include all legislative powers over Welfare should not be forgotten, and whilst the Calman Commission was an opportunity for the pro-Union parties to make suggestions about this, they failed to make any substantive points which would change the impact of Welfare Reform.  That they also failed to advocate a second question on the ballot paper with powers over welfare is again indicative of their inability to practice what they preach.

The “Better Together” Campaign has made no concrete suggestions which would entrust power of welfare to the Scottish Parliament, yet they want and expect the Scottish Government to mitigate any decisions made under that retained power when they disagree with them. Surely the UK under their premise, which retains the power, should make UK wide welfare decisions, or they shouldn’t. The only way they shouldn’t or couldn’t is if welfare is devolved. And whilst the pro-Union parties hid from any concrete proposals for a second question on the Independence Referendum ballot paper, there is only one option on the table whereby Scottish voters have the opportunity to help build a welfare system that they believe in and shares their values of fairness. And that isn’t the status quo.

So, yes, the Scottish Government should take any and all actions it can to help the Scottish people it serves, but we should remember, by choosing to remain in the UK, we choose to retain UK wide welfare reform, and long-term, it is not feasible, practical or affordable for a parliament which survives on a set, and shrinking, block grant to continue to play the role of mitigator. And consequently ,Scottish tax payers taking on the burden of reduced public expenditure on other vital public services to correct the folly of the coalition.




Jumping into bed with the Swedes

Shetland's hybrid Scots-Scandinavian flag

Shetland: Already halfway there

There have, in the past week, been a few noteworthy articles regarding the Scandinavian shadow which looms large over the issue of Scottish independence, as well as the future and makeup of Scotland’s economy, welfare system and society more generally.

Now I write this as somebody who knows a fair deal more about Scandinavia than most, for both personal and professional reasons.  A colleague of mine in the Greens remarked that the next Scottish Green manifesto should just be called ‘Scandinavian Nirvana’, such is the appetite in the party for increased welfare, greater social freedoms, gender equality and local democracy. I wholeheartedly agree.

Which brings me to something said by Blair McDougall in a BBC interview on the independence referendum. He accuses his opposite number in the Yes campaign, the significantly more articulate and less hackish Blair Jenkins, of wanting ‘57 per cent tax like in Norway’. There are indeed people in Norway paying that much tax, but these kind of people are not the salt of the earth working men and women which McDougall thinks will be crushed by the weight of Kaiser Salmond’s iron taxation, if he did indeed have such plans.

Then there was a report in The Economist which made the odd logical step of collating the radical reforms by centre-right governments in Sweden and formerly in Denmark with the high living standards and safe economies of the Nordic countries. As the Swedish journalist Katrin Kielos noted, there is an awful schizophrenia about the new craze for the Nordic centre-right, in that it assumes that being Scandinavian is a virtue in itself and argues that the path forward for these secure and durable systems is to follow a more British or American model . It is a trend which wishes to dine on the fruits of the Scandinavian countries’ labour whilst seeking to undermine it at its foundations.

The whole thing is illustrative of the fact that there is a huge amount of ignorance about the way in which Scandinavian society functions, and that this ignorance can be used to significant political advantage. It is also debatable to what extent it is even appropriate to address the Nordic countries as a single unit. There are however certain things which underpin  ‘the Scandinavian model’ which Scotland would have to adopt were it to develop in such a direction.

The first is a strict ethos of universalism. Not all services are free in Sweden or its neighbours, but notable by its absence is the incredibly British notion of selective assistance. Britain seems to implicitly accept that there should be huge gaps in income between different levels of society, and that one of the roles of public welfare is to alleviate this. It is a mode of thinking which the New Labour project perfected with its targeted alleviation, support for bright pupils from state schools and university access bursaries, without ever tackling the structural causes of poverty and discrimination.

Secondly, the way in which Scandinavian trade unions work is different to the British model. The nostalgia for the 1970s which pervades much of Britain’s left ignores the fact that old British models of trade-unionism were what allowed public support for the radical reforms of the 1980s. The systems of collective bargaining employed in Sweden and relatively high levels of unionisation amongst what might be termed normal people means that it is both destigmatised and can claim to represent large portions of the population.  This system has come under attack from centre-right governments in recent years but has survived relatively intact. The Scandinavian countries do not have a legal minimum wage, but they do have an effective minimum wage proportionally higher than Scotland, leading to a reduction in income inequality before the tax system has even played its redistributive  role.

And once tax is collected, where does it go? Not into benefits as they might be normally understood, but rather into the provision of universal services.  Childcare, incredibly well funded education systems, transport and infrastructure and healthcare.  The biggest challenge to Scotland is whether it is possible to transfer to this type of system given the appalling disparity evident in the country and present. It is in the interests of every Scottish woman to vote for a scenario which will provide the funding and structures for them to work and live on the same terms as men (and from a male feminist perspective, in men’s interest too).

Now to return to Blair McDougall and his mythical 57 per cent tax rate, I would say that it would only become an issue when you earn as much money as a senior press adviser or an MP.  Having large tax reserves means that in times of crisis governments are able to effectively deal with them, unlike the British model of medium taxation on an out of control financial system without any thought as to the after effects.

So to be realistic, adopting a Scandinavian social model would involve higher rates of tax, but it would also involve higher wages and better public services. In real terms incomes might well be higher, or at least remain static whilst providing for higher levels of public investment.

The whole thing is also dependent on a grand narrative. People vote for things because they believe in their viability, and the Scandinavian system is underpinned by a notion of functional redistribution different from the dominant discourse in Britain, and even in Scotland. It isn’t about smashing the rich or shooting bankers at dawn, but rather about building a cohesive society which works in the interest of all. As Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg says, “to create we must share, and to share we must create.”

David Leask’s excellent ‘As Others See Us’ column in the Herald, in which a group of Norwegians were asked for their opinion on independence, was revealing. The lack of interest in Scotland’s constitutional future was unsurprising – I frequently find myself explaining to Swedes the ins and outs of the independence movement – as Scotland is not politically visible. The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter  recently published a feature on Europe’s contemporary independence movements which mentioned Scotland in the same breath as the Northern League in Italy and Flemish separatism in Belgium, entirely ignoring the broadly leftist motivations found in the majority of pro-independence groups and parties in Scotland. The challenge will be to explicitly build the construction of a sustainable and humane welfare state into the Scottish cultural narrative at home and abroad.

Neither would we or should we transform Scotland into Scandinavia overnight. When talking with a good friend of mine about how I hoped to live in a Scotland where I felt the state and society treated me and any potential wife/partner equally she smiled wryly and wished me good luck, with some justification. But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try. I answered that to combine the best aspects of Scotland and Sweden would create something beautiful, but that it would require the type of radical social change not seen since the 1960s. It would be a national project which larger countries would be entirely incapable of, but which might just work in Scotland. Scandinavia might be a fluid concept with many faces, but the values which it ostensibly represents are what we should really be aiming for. Both financially and morally, we cannot afford not to.

Tags: , , , , ,