BarnettMax, Fishfood & DevoCon 2014: Sins of ComMission

And so yesterday the Smith Commission delivered its recommendations in my current place of work – the grand hall of the National Museum of Scotland. A small stage was erected at one of the points where the much-missed fish ponds used to sit in the beautiful open space (fish ponds that were removed by the desire of a director who wanted to ‘make his mark’, no matter what), and the Commission members sat behind Lord Smith of Kelvin as he made his announcement. The task of getting agreement between 5 political parties on an extended package of devolved measures for Scotland within ten weeks had earned the project the nickname ‘ComMission Impossible’. So, would it have been more worthwhile shredding the report’s pages for distribution as some faux fish food for those erstwhile ponds?

Before looking at the nutritional value (or otherwise) of the content, even in simple overview form, it is worth remembering that all the Smith Commission has produced are ‘recommendations’, just as the Calman Commission before did, and there is no certainty that those recommendations will come to pass. For example, the oft-discussed Air Passenger Duty was a recommended area to be devolved by Calman in 2009, but that did not happen. And, as Labour last night ‘demanded’ that English airports are not disadvantaged by the resulting legislation, it is easy to see that that particular proposal might not make it to the final bill without a struggle.

Soon after the announcement, David Cameron used the Smith Commission’s report as a neat springboard to reiterate his intention of bringing forward his English Votes for English Laws (and the tying of EVEL to the Smith Commission may well delay the implementation of the latter), as a response to the West Lothian question of old. And why not? A YouGov poll the other week showed that Scottish voters very much backed the principle of English votes for English laws, with 68% in favour, and only 18% against. Scots don’t seem to have any problem with the idea – but Labour seems to: apparently the spectre of them losing the power to pass their own budget without the support of their Scottish MPs is a very real fear for them.

But the House of Commons is not the only chamber that has to be considered in such a rejigging to accommodate and reflect regional interests. Today I bumped into a colleague on George IV Bridge, whom I first met while he staffed the same polling station as myself on the 18th September. He was dismissive of the Smith Commission (unsurprisingly) – and, after mocking the association of terms like ‘modern blueprint for Home Rule’ ‘Federalism’ or ‘DevoMax’ with these most anaemically modest of proposals, he was clearly enraged by a discussion of EVEL that was completely ignoring an EVEL Elephant in the palace of Westminster. “Nobody’s mentioning the House of Lords!”, he said with exasperation. And it is true – the dominance of the right wing southern England perspective in the House of Lords should not be forgotten, as it is a chamber which has great power to amend or even veto legislation relating to Scotland – and did so without hesitation or so much as a ‘by your leave’ when it came to energy/fracking-related powers for the Scottish Parliament being summarily taken back from Holyrood without warning in December last year.

But back to those recommendations – very similar to Labour’s ‘DevoNano’ (or what one colleague wittily referred to as Labour’s ‘DevoF***All’) proposals before the Referendum. Critically, any additional sources of revenue are explicitly compensated for in paragraph 95, which makes clear that there is always a reduction in the block grant to match any new source of revenue. So – no matter what certain ‘Vow-toting’ tabloids might pretend…no more money for the Scottish Government to spend. Just the extra costs of paying for the administration of collecting some of it – although the fact that this means one less institution to have to pay set-up costs for in the event of independence, is not to be sneezed at.

The actual tax-related powers proposed to be devolved are very telling. Despite the ability to set income tax rates and bands, the taxes relating to personal allowance, capital gains, corporation, inheritance, rates on savings and dividends and National Insurance all remain reserved. Interestingly, the personal allowances for income tax, employers’ National Insurance contributions, inheritance tax and even the power to create new taxes without Treasury approval were all in a November 21st draft of the Commission’s report, within 7 days of its final recommendations being presented. Sources close to the Commission identifed Labour as the principal obstacle to tax proposals – perhaps ironic, given Richard Murphy’s (economist and tax advisor based in England) observation that the only people that the final tax proposals impact on – and does so quite negatively – is working people. So far from an addressing of inequality, a threatened increase of that inequality.

Similarly, in terms of welfare, Holyrood could now (if the proposal goes forward to become legislation) decide on whether to pay housing benefit weekly, fortnightly or monthly – beyond that (and some incapacity benefits) pretty much every other aspect of welfare benefit remains reserved. Although throughout the Commission’s work the representatives of the Westminster coalition were most interested in welfare proposals, it is apparently the case that in the last two days of negotiation, Labour opposition resulted in a far more substantial welfare package (including aspects of Universal Credit) being removed from consideration, to leave only this wizened and restricted effort behind. One wonders what differences in social support might have been possible, had this omission not occurred in the last phase.

But what did make it through to the Report are moves to allow 16/17 year olds to have the franchise for Holyrood elections, the option of public ownership of rail franchises, and some controls ceded over Crown Estates and fracking. These may not go far, but have to be clearly acknowledged as ‘good things’. [Therefore, unlikely that they, along with Air Passenger Duty, will all make it on to the devolved statute books.]

So – not exactly Gordon Brown’s promised “near Federalism”. And definitely pretty far short of that mythical, rarely seen (rarer than the water beastie in Loch Ness) but often discussed beast – DevoMax.

DevoMax (aka Full Fiscal Autonomy – Scotland standing on its own two feet, with no Barnett Formula, and paying a lump sum to Westminster for shared services, rather than receiving devolved funding back, as currently) was never on offer, despite media attempts to conflate what was ‘on offer’ with that (thanks again to political pundit Jackie Bird, famous impersonator of journalists) to the extent that ‘any further devolution’ became synonymous with ‘DevoMax’. If you like it was a switch from DevoMax meaning ‘the maximum devolution POSSIBLE while still remaining a part of the UK state’, to DevoMax meaning ‘the maximum devolution that Westminster are ever going to ALLOW you to have within the UK state’. Interestingly, amidst this confused bandying around of the term in the run-up to the Referendum, it was observed that support for DevoMax (from the position of it being the preferred option of the electorate) had DROPPED compared to support for full independence during the last month leading up to the Referendum date.

With the release of the Report, the signatories to the notorious ‘Vow’ have predictably been queuing up with unseemly haste and enthusiasm, like goldfish gulping at shreds of paper that they mistake for flakes of fish food at the surface of their tank, to aver that they have delivered on their promise – now please stop asking them for more. Hilariously, I heard Nick Clegg yesterday try to create his own iteration of this ‘Devo’ meme, referring to the proposals as ‘VowMax’, as though he were a) trying to come up with a trendy new term no journalist has thought of and b)trying to preempt the rising arguments of the proposals being much less than expected by ‘Conditional No’s.

Beyond the ‘No’ side enthusing to an embarrassing degree over the Emperor’s dazzling New Tax Powers (less than 30% of taxes set in Scotland, just under 40% of its total expenditure, so not exactly earth-shattering), the conclusions on the ‘Yes’ side are pretty much as predicted ten weeks ago: not only do the proposals fail to meet the aspirations of two thirds of the Scottish electorate for DevoMax (all powers apart from defence and foreign affairs devolved to Holyrood), it merely gives Scotland significant power to spend money, with zero power to create that money in order to spend it. In other words, the same as before – choose which of your existing services you are going to cut, if you are going to use these powers, and have no means whatsoever to make changes that increase the revenue necessary to create Change.

When Patrick Harvie noted that it was “a funding formula for devolution, not the transfer of genuine economic power”, I started to think that these proposals were little more than revising the Barnett arrangement. Some relabeling of the means by which it comes to the Scottish Government, but still ultimately controlled by Westminster. In that spirit, perhaps I can grab the same thistle as Nick Clegg, and describe this set of proposals (highly unlikely to be approved as a bill with no omissions, just as Calman was) as ‘BarnettMax’.

No? Not trendy enough? Oh, well…

Ariel Dorfman remarked that it placed the Scottish Government clearly in the role of Secretary to Westminster as Boss – no ability to make any decisions, but responsibility for all the administration and paperwork. In effect, for as much as we still have to see what will be proposed for legislation on January 25th next year (as one observer put it when the original schedule was announced by Gordon Brown, “St Andrews’ Day and Burns Night – could they BE any more patronising?”), the Smith Commission has given us a valuable insight into precisely how far the Westminster party consensus is prepared to move – the maximum amount of devolution that they are prepared to concede – in order to retain Scotland within the UK.

In a sense – particularly considering how hard they fought to persuade the people of Scotland to stay – it is perhaps surprising that the distance they are prepared to move is so remarkably small. Now there’s fishfood for thought.

 

“There isn’t an effective devolution of tax and yet it says there is an effective devolution of tax. There is no corporation tax devolution, no oil tax devolution, no National Insurance devolution, no capital gains tax devolution, no inheritance tax devolution. The VAT devolution is completely and utterly useless. Only working people in Scotland can be impacted by what is happening. It won’t affect rents, it won’t affect dividends, it won’t affect savings, it won’t affect land distribution…all you can do is change the rates. All in all it’s a disastrous package.” (Richard Murphy, Tax Advisor and Economist)

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Student Politics And The Microcosm: The true story of Pontius Pilate and Professor Malcolm Macleod (Neurology)

The launch today of the 5 day pilot of ‘The National’ newspaper supporting independence, in the midst of the Scottish labour leadership contest, made me reflect on former encounters in the student realm with both aspiring journalists and Labour careerists.  In this regard, I do sometimes wonder if I have just been extremely unfortunate in the Scottish Labour individuals that I came across on a personal, working basis within student politics – Jim Murphy, Malcolm Macleod, Dougie Alexander… While Alexander seemed quite the non-entity when I worked alongside him compared with his public profile today, he served as Rector’s Assessor to the today more generally-anonymous Macleod. I knew Macleod much better, first meeting him at medical school: although he seemed to specialise mostly in offending his classmates, and apparently having a big hand-up in his career from his mother (although nepotism is perhaps not so unusual in the medical profession – as with others), he was otherwise not exceptional.

I can remember the first time that Macleod’s political venom first became evident to me. I had completed a summer working for a life assurance company, and was commenting on how poor the security was, in terms of how easy it would be to send penalty payments through to people on their policies. “I wouldn’t hesitate if I saw Malcolm Rifkind’s name” he said, in a flash. For myself, I had only been casually joking in more modest, parochial terms – perhaps an unpopular and sectarian anatomy lecturer, for example – but Malcolm’s instincts were swift, to the point and extremely serious.

When I came back to university a couple of years later, things had changed – he was standing for student president on a Labour Club ticket – the standard way for political hacks to start out when they wanted a career in the Labour Party. What struck me was that a number of our friends, who were Labour Club members, were avowedly declaring that they would not support him under any circumstance. I was a little surprised by their vehemence – which seemed to indicate a mistrust not of his abilities but his motivation, and what he would actually do in post – but I helped in his election campaign anyway. Could he have changed that much as an individual, to become so mistrusted by friends (some of them, admittedly, now somewhat distanced from him)? Macleod won, and took office – however, soon afterwards, a number of those who had campaigned for him were starting to wonder if they should have expended quite so much effort in doing so. His abrasive style did not go down well, and his year troughed particularly when he was exposed as having an affair with the editor of the Student newspaper, at the expense of his long-term partner. I think that, for me, this defined a fundamental mistrust in that type of infidelity in a politician – frankly, if that is how they behave with someone who trusts them implicitly, then how can they be trusted to do anything for the electorate, beyond taking whatever they can for themselves? But there was something slightly bizarre about this revelation – the way in which sleeping with a newspaper editor mirrored ‘grown-up’ politics and advancement. Did Malcolm not realise that this was kiddies politics? Was he perhaps not taking it a bit too seriously?

I wondered if he would continue his Labour career trajectory, and it was with little surprise that I read of his failed attempt to get selected for the Ochil seat: I would be unsurprised if in particular it was his abrasive personality that led to his 5th place on a regional list. But I only read of this retrospectively in August 23rd’s The Herald, where he was touted as the leader of something called ‘Medics for No’ (me neither) in their head-to-head section against Philippa Whitford speaking for NHS for Yes. Within that piece, Macleod’s familiarly offensive nature rose to the fore again – I could practically hear his grunting laugh with amusement at his own comments, just as he used to – referring to Yes supporters as ‘delusional’, ‘juvenile’ and ‘immature’. He still patronises well, after all these years: ‘There’s a lovely, attractive optimism in the Scottish psyche. It’s given us the confidence to travel to the furthest corners of the world’ – actually Malcolm, that’s a little bit more to do with having no choice but to leave, due to clearances and land ownership, not some twee ‘och theres gie few like us, eh?’ attitude. Check out the ‘The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil’ to fill in those convenient gaps in your education.

In classic deflective style, he then accused his opponents of telling lies (although the idea that he can accuse anyone of that, given his time as student president, is frankly risible), but deliberately used the term ‘porkies’: always talk down to your audience as though they are children, use that vocabulary to remind them that they know nothing and should listen to whatever you tell them. This, of course, was a set-up for his own great lie: he defended the fact that the cuts in health service spending in England would be communicated via the Barnett Formula to Scotland as not impacting on the NHS in Scotland, because ‘you can always raise more taxes if you need them’.

This uncomfortably reminded me of my own time working for the Students’ Representative Council at the University of Edinburgh, again involving the Student newspaper (although perhaps not in quite the same marriage of convenience that Macleod would have opted for) – and, in that sense, this post serves as much as an apology for that, as for aiding the beginnings of Malcolm’s political career. A cut in funding was implemented by the University on the funding that it was supposed to disburse to us, in spite of the fact that we had run our finances competently for very many years (they had woken up with an unexpected £5.98 million deficit, as one or two financial overseers mysteriously left the organisation one lunchtime), and while we campaigned against this, a large number of our internal budgets had to be cut.

One of them was the budget that the Student newspaper was funded from. The Student newspaper was founded in 1887 by Robert Louis Stevenson, making it the UK’s oldest student newspaper, but the paper was running at a hugely disproportionate loss as part of the Students’ Association’s publications board, compared to (for example) student societies, and the question was asked as to whether we as a student body could afford to keep subsidising it on this basis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Student newspaper responded by calling in some favours from its generations of media graduates, and the local press corps (e.g. the Scotsman newspaper) got involved, asking the question ‘Why are you trying to close down the Student newspaper?’ From the political perspective, I knew exactly how to answer that: ‘The only people who can close the Student newspaper are the students who run it’. Ring any bells? David Cameron came out with exactly the same phrase with regard to NHS Scotland (and Macleod is clearly a kindred spirit) – and from personal experience I recognised it for the empty statement that it was: you can say you are not deciding to privatise NHS Scotland, but through the mechanism of the ‘death of a thousand cuts’ to the overall budget, you are still deciding that that will be the result. Your hand does not need to be the one that signs the piece of paper, you can pretend it is the decision of the one who has to choose between destinations for diminishing resources – it wasn’t me, guv – and that they were the one to have been the one to make that outcome inevitable. The fact that Pilate outsources the decision of who to pardon, does not detract from the fact that he had already decided that people are going to die.

Tom Gordon’s piece remarked, without a trace of irony, that in Macleod, politics’ loss might well have been medicine’s gain. I am less convinced of the latter interpretation – and I am similarly unconvinced by Macelod’s guarantees of the safety of funding for the NHS in Scotland, in the wake of reduced NHS expenditure in England. Yes, you can choose to support other NHS Scotland funding from your budget, regardless of what happens to the NHS south of the border – but that means making a priority of it at the expense of other areas that are already funded, and it is utterly disingenuous to fail to recognise that in the same breath as you state that its funding can only be threatened by the Scottish Government, as though NHS funding was magically protected – something that I was guilty of all those years ago, when referring to the Student Newspaper’s continuing existence. And sure, you can increase taxes – but that is further stretching an already overburdened people, and unfairly driving them towards a neoliberal agenda that they did not in any way vote for.

Of course, the way to progress is to break the linkage between the Treasury in London and the taxes raised in Scotland, so that the money is spent there on the priorities decided by the people that live there, without having an increasing chunk of it reserved for London usage. In this regard, there might be an unlikely source for optimism to be taken from Ruth Davidson’s recent observation that full transfer of raising all income tax to Scotland was a minimum requirement in more devolution – even a “red line issue” (ignoring her previous ‘line in the sand’ statement as regards the idea of more powers for the Scottish Government). This means that the Barnett Formula is history…but that only works if the responsibility for spending it also is devolved – not just a portion, the rest being sent in tithe to the Treasury, but all of it. As much as such a step would no doubt be presented as ‘full control’ and ‘full responsibility’, full responsibility to collect without the power to spend it fully is meaningless, and simply translates into a devolving of the costs of tax collectors…to be yet another additional element that has to be funded by Scottish taxpayers. Just as the shortfall in Barnett resulting from the enhanced privatisation of the NHS in England would also be. Scotland already pays more than its fair share to subsidise the ongoing union – and will be asked to pay yet more (we are already slated to pay £12 billion towards National Infrastructure Plan projects – although only one of those billions will be spent in Scotland, and it is somewhat challenging to see how transport or sewer infrastructure projects in London will directly beneift the scottish subsidisers of those particular projects). Being asked to pay to collect taxes without freedom to allocate the spend of all taxes is not ‘more powers’, but ‘more liabilities’ and ‘fewer services’. Not such an attractive offer.

In the week that the Smith Commission has to deliver its report, that is worth bearing in mind.

“Reading ‘Scotland’s Future’, I couldn’t at first account for a faint twinge of melancholy, a recognition. Then it dawned on me. The Scotland being here described – or proposed – was the Britain so passionately hoped for by the millions who voted for Tony Blair, back in 1997.” (Neal Ascherson, 29th November 2013)

Scotland’s Economic Prospects In and Out of Union, and the Death of the Post-War Dream

At the end of my first day back on the stall, an individual approached the stall wanting to know our reasons for voting Yes. It soon became clear that rather than undecided, he was a ‘No’ voter, so as my colleagues packed up tables and diminishing numbers of leaflets in the background, I continued to talk to him. Although ‘No’ supporters are ‘high risk’ in terms of time investment (and there is always the danger of them simply being a deliberately time-wasting troll – but for that they usually pretend to be undecided), this is also part of winning the potential peace if we get a Yes vote, and if at least some concerns can be alleviated amongst the more rational and less headstrong of them, then the smoother that transition might be. We don’t want ‘Project Fear’ to reap its own harvest of further fear in the wake of an actual ‘Yes’, having spent its entire campaign trying to create uncertainty about the future of a much wealthier (per head) independent Scotland, without turning any scrutiny to the massive uncertainties of remaining tied to a UK economy that is going down the pan with an ever increasing debt mountain (and punishing the poor and disabled on its way down).

It appeared, from his account, that he had been swayed to ‘No’ by the arguments of a variety of economists. I suggested that he look at Joseph Stiglitz’s analysis, but wanted to use it as a prompt to get a particular article on the economy up on this blog.

Others elsewhere have noted the degree to which the UK’s economy continues to decline, thus starting to raise the possibilities of further cuts than those already waiting in the wings after a ‘No’ vote. Others elsewhere have run the numbers for what Scotland’s net surplus contribution to the UK has been over the last thirty years (£222 billion). For further figures on Scotland’s longer term pre-oil overpayment, I refer the interested to Business for Scotland: http://www.businessforscotland.co.uk/scotlands-century-of-lost-wealth/ and also for figures predating Ireland’s break from the UK to ‘The Historical Debt’, an article on Wings Over Scotland that reprints figures from a 1960s (pre-oil) publication.

The Financial Times (February 4th) has noted that Scotland would start with better finances (10.9% better, to be precise) than the UK from day 1 of independence. This – like many reports – also makes the flawed assumption that the expenditure plans of the Scottish Government would remain the same as currently (i.e. devolved rather than independent), whereas the lack of burden of UK –spending plans currently not directly benefiting Scotland would also be lifted. If you like, this is the dividend savings of self-government – freed of supporting infrastructure projects elsewhere in the UK with no direct Scottish benefit (particularly London-centric ones, such as the Olympics – see earlier blog for the tourism impact on Scotland that year) such as HS2 (which Scotland will pay £4.8-7.9 billion towards, despite it stopping 150 miles short of the border), the replacement for Trident (£250 million per year for Scottish taxpayers, currently £160 million per year for the current model), shares of the £3 billion Westminster refurbishment (never mind the £60 million per year currently paid to running Westminster and the Scotland Office – and that is without the imminent 10% pay rise announced for MPs) and the £4.2 billion London sewer upgrade (perhaps related to the preceding item in the list – who can say?). They also do not take account of export duty and VAT currently lost to Scotland via payments through port of exit (for duty) and head office location (for VAT).

The proposed budget in the SNP’s Scotland’s Future manifesto includes £800 million per annum on defense, in order to set up a Scottish military. There are also the opportunities that come from paying for a Scottish rather than London-based civil service – and from closing tax loopholes (£2.8 billion currently estimated to be lost in Scotland by HMRC) partly through replacing the horrifically complicated UK tax system with a transparent and efficient one with fewer loopholes.

All of these are positive opportunities to save vast amounts of money as well as expand our activities and pay towards an oil fund. But there is a rising political pressure (undoubtedly a vote winner with those in the UK that are outside of Scotland) to scrap the Barnett Formula, which (if replaced by an average system for all), will leave a hole the size of 30% of the Scottish block grant. This should also be viewed against the alternative, whereby the Scottish Government Budget allocated from 2011-2016 is planned to drop by almost 10%. Where, of the 42 nations analysed, the UK’s pensions are not only the worst in Europe (see previous blog) but 39th out of 42 in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Mexico, Indonesia and South Africa are the only countries that come lower in pensions).

Currently we have a political climate that demonises the poor, to the extent that a welfare agenda that saves £6 million by Ian Duncan Smith with a benefit cap in its first year, yet costs £120 million to implement, is presented as legitimate or beneficial. Where, under the pretense of eliminating the DWP estimated £1.2 billion of benefit fraud, cancer sufferers assessed as able to work, while benefit overpayments due to error are £1.4 billion (DWP estimate) and dwarfed by the £16 billion of unclaimed benefits both go unaddressed. And figures for tax avoidance are estimated between £30-120 billion, yet that is not a priority. Labour’s complicity in the welfare cuts (even promising to go further) and the privatisation of the NHS in England and Wales dragging NHS (Scotland) down the same route of a privatized health service through corresponding funding cuts paint us a picture of the future of health and welfare within the UK that is increasingly bleak. This is the Death of the Post-War Dream, as the Westminster government ties its people into nuclear energy companies with ridiculous guaranteed tariffs when we have our own burgeoning energy resources, nuclear weapons sit on the Clyde as a ghost of Empire that are entirely redundant for us in the modern age, and not tackling but creating more poverty when we could seriously address it as a priority which it has ever been for Westminster.

Our priorities are not those of the SE of England, and they are the ones who determine the government of Westminster – NEVER us. And for that reason, we cannot expect to ever receive an equitable deal within the Union – that is simple politics. If we take responsibility for ourselves and our actions, we can avoid continuing as the rich nation held in poverty by its neighbor, and be what we can be.

 

“Even excluding North Sea output ….Scotland would qualify for our highest economic assessment” (Standard and Poor’s, global credit rating agency, February 27th 2014)

 “An independent Scotland could expect to start with healthier state finances than the rest of the UK” (Financial Times, February 3rd 2014)

Not taking ‘No’ for an answer: When all tomorrow’s jams seem bitter together, what way forward for ‘No’?

I am aware that I may be writing counter to the trend, given the recent polls from YouGov, but I do feel that I should explore the ‘what if No?’ dimension at least one more time. So, what are the options if a ‘No’ happens?
Well, a dearly beloved alternative, particularly of progressives in the rest of the UK, is federalism.

Unfortunately, the only party with any commitment to such reform is the Liberal Democrats. Full marks to them, the Liberals have campaigned for federalism since the 19th century – but sadly within 12 months of coalition government, the decades of progress that had been made towards them getting the power necessary to deliver that model had been destroyed. So, given that it will probably take them a good ten-twenty years to recover in terms of popular support from the damage of being coalition partners, that is not going to happen. (Incidentally, this temporary political annihilation of parties that become weaker secondary partners in a coalition government at Westminster does appear to be something of a tradition.)

So what of the prospects of further devolution? Certainly few believe that there is little cause for optimism that many further ‘powers’ beyond Calman (i.e. those already supposed to be coming for 2015) will be granted: last year, 67% of Scots believed that a No vote would result in either no new powers, or FEWER powers, for the Scottish Parliament. Given the paucity of what was offered by the three Westminster parties as proposals in the first half of this year, it is unlikely that any new offer will meet the aspirations of those same Scots: 60% of them wanted control of Welfare devolved, 53% control of oil revenues and 52% control of taxation. The chances of welfare and tax – never mind anything else – being ceded to Holyrood are zero, and only small pieces of them have been included in the most wide-ranging extension to devolution (ironically that of the Conservatives – apparently trying to become the new ‘Party of Devolution’).

(Perhaps surprisingly, only 35% wanted Defense, including regiments and siting of nuclear weapons, devolved.)

Although irrelevant as a policy-leading force, it is worth noting that the LibDems pledged to have no different tax rates across the UK, and to end the Barnett Formula, in their last manifesto. The end of this formula has been widely argued for across the leadership of all three Westminster parties, and any proposal for more ‘powers’ for Holyrood always comes with the price tag of the abolition of Barnett sitting in the background. Now, the right wing media appears to have fomented UK-wide public hostility to Scotland having had the temerity to even consider leaving – and even if that hostility is not a majority, it is vocal. As a loud body of opinion, it makes it easier for Westminster to be seen to be responding to the wishes of the people of Britain when they take any punitive measures against Holyrood. So this political upwelling of resentment down south accompanies a desire to either nullify or water down any ‘further powers’ offered to an ‘ungrateful’ Scotland. The talk of extending devolution has commonly been linked to the end of the Barnett Formula (whereby Scotland gets the equivalent of around 70% of its taxes returned to it), with a projected loss of £4.5-6.5 billion from the Scottish Government’s budget. If varying tax rates – with the additional cost of setting up an equivalent to HMRC for Scotland and pay millions for it to function annually – come at the cost of losing the Barnett funding formula, then it is hard to present it as really a ‘power’. One might instead refer to it as a ‘burden’ added to an already severely cut block of funding, which conveniently hobbles the Scottish Government’s budget. Simply put, it will crucify the Scottish Government’s budget.

But even so, were these desirable outcomes, could we really believe that such meager offers could come to pass? The Westminster parties had the opportunity to come up with a package of DevoMax as a second question for the ballot paper. They refused to do so. They know full well that placing the nature of any DevoMax package within the separate manifestoes of the three parties for the Westminster elections next year, is the equivalent of striking it far, far into the long grass: no commitment, no need to deliver.

You might argue that Better Together got the leaders (and Scottish branch leaders) of the three Westminster parties to sign that big declaration unveiled in Glasgow on August 5th: ‘There Shall Be More Powers For The Scottish Parliament’, that huge piece of card said. So surely that means something? Well…it is probably worth noting that the reliability of the signatories on the ‘big guarantee’ scroll, despite their comparatively short time as party leaders (in contrast to Alex Salmond) is not impressive. Nick Clegg and Willie Rennie, with their famous signed pledge not to support tuition fees? Well, they ended up supporting them just fine. Ruth Davidson being elected Scottish Conservative leader on her ‘line in the sand’ pledge of no more powers for Holyrood? Well, that was until she came out and signed the pledge in August, of course.

And then there is David Cameron. Leaving aside his promise to defend the NHS (which I have dealt with elsewhere) at the same time as he has continued its privatisation, David Cameron also pledged to reduce the size of parliament. And yet the House of Lords now numbers 850 unelected members, as Cameron has created 183 new peers. So that leaves Labour’s representatives. Although it is true that it is harder to pick either of them up on actual lies, this should be remembered in the content-free soundbite context that they do say so little that it would be hard to ‘fact check’ them. This is particularly true in Johann’s case, where she presents so much confusion over her own policies…although she has showed a suspicious enthusiasm for quoting the ‘something for nothing culture’ comments of Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Ian Duncan Smith and George Osborne. But, to be fair, that merely shows an ideological questionability, rather than outright mendacious tendencies on her part. Anyway, neither Labour leader looks likely to be leading the next government of either parliament, so they are perhaps the least relevant of the six signatories. As each of the signatories to the Glasgow scroll hardly have ‘reliability’ written next to their names, so perhaps a sack of salt should really be applied when seeing any ‘guarantees’ that they may enthusiastically be claiming that they are underwriting.

There are – arguably – pigs in pokes that have more reliability, in terms of something worth risking a vote on. Really, would you want to risk this one chance? Gamble so much on such a dodgy poker hand?

 

“Like many, I argued for a second question offering a middle way – which I saw not as devolution but as ‘constitutionally secure autonomy within a reformed UK’. That door was slammed shut – but not by Scotland. ..The latest ‘offer’ of more powers from the unionist parties looks suspiciously like a rather desperate bribe – but it is not an answer to Scotland’s needs. The central issue at stake in the referendum is simple: Where should the ultimate power to make decisions that affect the lives of people in Scotland lie – at Westminster or in Scotland? As I should know, devolution – however ‘max’ it may be – is not the way, for two fundamental reasons. First, devolution is incomplete. It leaves vital areas directly under the control of Westminster. Take just one example of many – if the UK, as seems more and more likely, leaves the EU, Scotland will be dragged out too, at great cost. Second, devolution is insecure. The wording of today’s ‘offer’ is very revealing. It indicates that greater powers would be ‘granted to Scotland’. Granted indeed? By whom? Scotland’s history is marked by Claims of Right, all of which rejected as a matter of Right the powers claimed by the ‘Crown in Parliament’ to decide for Scotland. Devolution is power, not as a right, but by gift – or more accurately by loan, since gifts can’t usually be taken back. Westminster would retain the permanent power to grant, alter, or rescind. Devolution leaves the UK as a whole fundamentally unreformed.” (Canon Kenyon Wright, Chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, August 2014)

The Party of I Told You So, or ‘Too Late to the Party’

Many have talked about the possibilities of sustaining positive political change after the vote on September 18th – but I myself foresee a darker aspect. For, as upbeat as ‘Yes’ has been, I can see an inevitable transformation on the other side of the vote – regardless of the result – where the ‘Yes’ movement changes into the party of ‘I told you so’.

In a ‘Yes’ scenario, it is easiest to envisage (or even expect) this – as soon as those straw men of ‘no currency union’, ‘no EU entry’, start crumbling in the harsh light of RealPolitik’s dawn, there will be inescapable crowing from Yessers over our ‘extraordinary prescience’: we were right – and yes, you were right to listen. (And that is without even beginning to take into consideration the possibilities that the favourable economic future predicted by so many would start to make a real impact on people’s everyday lives…)

But there is also an imminent dark side of the ‘Yes’ campaign that is poised in the shadows, waiting to emerge after a ‘No’. And no, I’m not talking about any of the mythical ‘aggression’ that Yes has been accused of by ‘No’. There has been a mendacity in the ‘No’ campaign that has translated into a ‘scorched earth’ policy for Scotland’s place in the Union. In the course of ‘No’s malice, Scotland has come to see that her comfortable perception that we were regarded as some sort of equal partner in this Union, has been completely obliterated in this campaign, in favour of rather being some kind of errant child. In this sense, it recalls the way some commentators look on the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US to be a one-sided piece of willful self-delusion…and feels uncomfortably similar.

Part PR construct and part revelation, this mean-spirited attitude has created (or ‘revealed’, depending on how much you believe that that attitude was already present) an increasingly hostile attitude towards us from other parts of the UK. In and of itself, this is unfortunate, but something that we could afford to deal with in the longer term, when reality begins to set in after a ‘Yes’. But after a ‘No’, this attitude instead becomes a dangerous thing, as this will politically legitimise much of what is to come as consequences for Scotland afterwards.

And this is not even talking about when the meagre promises of the ‘No’ campaign for ‘more powers’ fails to materialize. Although ‘Yes’ has run a remarkably positive campaign (to the extent of often being criticised for it, by its own supporters, when refusing to respond in kind to disparaging attacks by ‘No’), it has also highlighted what is waiting for us with a ‘No’ vote: next year’s welfare cuts (70% of the £6 billion cut to Scotland’s welfare budget due by 2016 have yet to be applied – ‘I told you so’), the further expansion in foodbanks and poverty levels (‘I told you so’), the National Health Service in Scotland starting to be cut whether through the TTIP treaty being applied (‘I told you so’), or the budget cuts with the loss of the Barnett Formula (a projected £4.5-6.5 billion) – yes, I really really did tell you so.

In the wake of a ‘No’, and as the above consequences slowly start to appear, the highly hostile attitudes that increasingly have been appearing via the press (including online comments) seem likely to emerge as a force majeur during next year’s UK general election campaign. Driven forward by the resentment towards Scotland created/revealed by the press and media, this will directly precede the ‘astonishing’ (to some) failure of anything resembling DevoMax to materialize, and suddenly a large tranche of the ‘No’ vote will start to reluctantly realise that they have been – successfully – played for mugs by the establishment.

What happens then, of course, would be very interesting. Of course, many ‘No’ voters would not care – for them this has all been about saving the Union, no matter what the cost: remember the statement by Jim Hood (MP for Lanark and Hamilton East) in Westminster, where he declared that he did not care if his constituents would be economically better off in an independent Scotland – he would still vote against it? But there will be others who will have voted ‘No’ genuinely believing that the future under the UK could not be so bad, and that of course Westminster would stand by their word and give Scotland ‘more real powers’. It’s them that will feel like they have been well and truly ‘had’. And – it seems likely – that more of them would go over – at least in principle – to ‘Yes’. How would this disillusionment manifest itself for ‘No’ voters? There is not another vote planned or envisaged for a considerable period of time, so little outlet for any sense of outrage from that quarter.

Of course, in a (currently hard to imagine) scenario whereby such disillusionment brings about a second vote on independence, this would be a positive thing: in that sense, even if they walk into the polling booth on the 18th September and vote ‘no’, those voters are still not a lost cause; they just need a little more experience of a reprise of that ‘1979 Feeling’, when those that had trusted Westminster (either Labour to have a fair referendum on devolution, or the Conservatives who promised a better offer after the Labour one was rejected) started to realise that they had been taken for a ride.

My father was one of those in 1979 – he died still angry at having been so brazenly and unashamedly deceived by politicians. Nowadays, we might say ‘well, what exactly did you expect?’, but the levels of public mistrust in politicians (particularly, for those naturally to the right of politics, of Conservative politicians) were not nearly as rampant as they became under the ensuing Conservative government. Now we live in a post-MP’s expenses world, where Alastair Darling can be cited in as august an academic publication as the ‘Biological Journal of the Linnean Society’ as the epitome of corruption in UK government: a Chancellor guilty of willful financial malpractice while in the top job in charge of the nation’s Treasury. In spite of this, blatant lying by politicians to their electorate is still found by most to be a shocking and abhorrent idea, still seen to be crossing ‘a line’ – and many of those voting ‘No’ will need a 1979-type shock to their system, to make them angry, understand (finally) why things need to be changed in terms of Westminster rule, and to be motivated to do something about it.

As I have said – how this new energy for change might manifest itself is hard to see at this point – particularly as the political will at Westminster will be for this question NEVER to be asked again. Already, Douglas Alexander is trying to manoeuvre to harness or ‘claim’ (‘neuter’, perhaps, is a better word for it) the revitalised political energy of the people in Scotland for Labour’s benefit – as inappropriate a hijacking as there could possibly be, after this campaign. Would it be through some sort of transformation of the current political energy, as happened with Common Cause after the 1992 General Election, which led to the Scottish Constitutional Convention? Perhaps it might – but the harnessing of that energy and the forging of a road forward will be a lot more difficult this time, with Westminster implacably opposed to Scotland’s departure, and no Westminster political party wanting to advocate constitutional change along the lines desired by a revitalised people (something that the Labour Party happily took ownership of in the wake of the Constitutional Convention).

However many ‘No’s subsequently may come to feel cheated – it is highly likely by then that they will have come to the party too late, and missed their chance. What way forward for them, then?

 

“The Union of equals that we thought exists doesn’t exist…’we love you, please stay, if you go we’ll wreck your economy’…sometimes we’re treated very colonially.” (Stephen Noon, Yes Scotland)

NHS Scotland: Always independent, now at the TTIPing Point of Privatisation

On 16th August, 700 Co. Durham mothers, healthcare workers and trade unionists set off from the banks of the Tyne in a 300 mile walk reprising the 1936 Jarrow protest march at mass unemployment, in order to reach Westminster on 6th September for Prime Minister’s questions. They are doing so to protest and fight against the privatisation and dismantling of the NHS by the coalition government, and to support the continuation of a universal public health service.

So what has this to do with the Scottish independence Referendum? Possibly everything, in the positioning for the last battlefields as we enter the closing weeks of the campaigns. Scotland may, somewhat bizarrely, have the reputation as the sick man of Europe – but it was not always so. Research has previously demonstrated the link between the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s deindustrialisation in the west of Scotland and higher death rates, but Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer for the last 8 years, Sir Harry Burns, went further in December 2012: “In the 1970s and 1980s those jobs disappeared and the men who worked those shipyards were never re-employed. Shipyards, steel works, heavy industry in west central Scotland disappeared and was never replaced the way it was in the north of England … with car factories and so on. A void appeared in men’s lives and the void was filled with drink, drugs and fighting.”

We can measure this relative disparity in terms of Life Expectancy (LE) and Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE), both of which are consistently and significantly worse in Scotland than the rest of the UK (Scottish men and women live 2-2.5 years less than their English counterparts) and indeed than many other EU countries. Although LE has increased across Europe since 1998, the improvement has been significantly less in Scotland (4% for men and 2.5% for women), causing it to drop down the rankings of other European countries. For the most deprived 20% in Scotland, male LE/HLE is 70/50, with female LE/HLE 70.5/52.5.

So it seems that Scotland right now has some greater needs of its health service as part of the ongoing consequences of previous Westminster administrations. Sir Harry Burns warned that health inequalities are the biggest issue facing Scotland, because they “are really a manifestation of social inequality. Social complexity, social disintegration drives things like criminality, it drives things like poor educational attainment, it drives a whole range of things that we would want to see different in Scotland.” Before he left to become Professor of Global Public Health at Strathclyde University earlier this year, Harry noted that a ‘Yes’ vote could see significant health improvements, as health prospects for people improve greatly when they have more control over their lives – but he also warned against the dangers of a ‘No’ vote, with the impact from the ongoing privatisation of the NHS (England) directly pressurising the NHS (Scotland).

So, in what actual ways is the NHS really at risk in Scotland, given that it has always been independent, and is governed by Holyrood? Others have forcefully drawn attention to David Cameron’s use of a personal family tragedy to portray himself as the defender of the NHS – although it did not seem so cynical at the time, in the wake of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, he seems to have been far from sincere. The passing in Westminster in 2012 of the Health and Social Care Act had two principal effects, the first being (in under 2 pages) the removal of the Secretary of State for Health’s duty to secure and provide health care for all. The other 455 pages prepared the way for healthcare provision to move from a state/publicly-funded, publicly-provided service offering universal access to healthcare on the basis of need and not the ability to pay, to an economic activity, shifting towards US-style profit-prioritised health provision, thus ending the state monopoly by introducing the private market. The private market, of course, means cherry-picking the most lucrative services, with no strategy or planning across the sector for complete coverage, and that some sectors of society will not receive treatment as they will not have medical insurance (eg. the homeless, some of the elderly), and this is why politicians needed to absolve themselves of their duty of care to the population as a whole in those first pages. This process also – perhaps surprisingly – is likely to mean a drop in efficiency through privatisation (administration costing only 6% under the NHS, as opposed to 30-40% in the US). [If you are interested, I would commend you to the video of Professor Allyson Pollock(Professor of Public Health Research and Policy at Queen Mary University of London)’s Tedx talk on privatisation of the NHS – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cz5dl9fhj7o#t=55 ]

The NHS is not about providing care for ‘some’, it is free for all at point of need – that is what underlies the entire principle of it. Sustaining a small part of this idea, nested within a US model of private healthcare (the politicians who introduced it being driven and sponsored by the same companies that thrive in those markets in the US) does not constitute defending the NHS, as we might have understood Cameron’s intention to be. Andy Burnham is an odd voice to be warning of this, as someone who (under the last Labour government) initiated privatization when in post as Health Secretary. Now he criticises – not privatisation itself – but the ‘speed’ of that privatisation. One might cynically suggest that his is less of a Damascine Road conversion, than an opportunity to posture as an opponent in opposition, in the hope of appearing to be a defender (perhaps, again, like Cameron), and win political support for his party going into next year’s general election.

Why is all this relevant to the Referendum on Scottish independence? Well, there are three main reasons:
1) Now as shadow health secretary in opposition, Andy Burnham has recently been arguing for a pan-UK combined health policy and approach – presumably also threatening NHS (Scotland)’s independent status since its inception in 1948. So, in such a scenario, what is happening in England would become our own direct health service future. (It is perhaps – as a sidebar here – worth noting that although there is not a united NHS, it is a tribute to the cooperation and reciprocity between the different sections that they work so seamlessly as to make it difficult for us to notice that they are not a single unit. This is also true of NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), which deals with vital organ transplant services – these fully independent units have a number of reciprocal arrangements between the health services, as well as with other countries, which they stated in March 2014 will be unaffected in the event of independence, as these cross-border healthcare arrangements are expected to continue.)

2) Although NHS (Scotland) is a discrete unit, its funding is tied to the funding of NHS (England), such that the continuing outsourcing and privatisation within NHS (England) directly reduces the funding Scotland receives for its NHS. In 2013, contracts to private firms from NHS (England) was in excess of £10 billion. These – effectively – cuts to the public funding of the NHS (England), through the introduction of private ‘strings-attached’ finance have direct financial consequences to the block grant for the Scottish Government through use of the Barnett Formula, which redistributes a portion (around 70%) of taxes from Scotland back to Holyrood as part of the Scottish block grant, a calculation that is based on per head expenditure in England. (Admittedly, the likelihood of the Barnett Formula continuing to survive during the next Westminster parliament is fairly unlikely, and the consequent reductions in finance for Scotland are estimated at somewhere around £4.5-6.5 billion…so there could be even worse news for NHS (Scotland) with the demise of Barnett after a ‘No’ vote anyway.) Even although the money is not ringfenced for health service spending within the block grant, any reduction in the block grant signifies more pressure on the remaining areas to sustain service levels, health included. So there will inevitably be budget problems for Scotland’s NHS while dependency on Barnett funding continues (and these are likely to be cripplingly greater in the likely event of Barnett being dismantled during the next Westminster parliament).

3) The third reason is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) treaty between the EU and the US, that opens state services to competition from US multinationals. This competition can only occur where privatisation of a given service already exists within a state – which means that for now it can occur south of the border in the health service, but not north of the border. However, there are implications for Scotland if it (through voting ‘No’) declares itself to be a mere territory of the greater UK, as it could be viewed as therefore only a part of a partially privatized whole and thus legitimately open to competition. (Again, if Andy Burnham’s pan-UK health service came to pass, it would be left even more clearly vulnerable to this form of privatizing assault, with no possible defense in declaring itself to be a discrete state unit with an ongoing state monopoly of health provision.)

In contrast, it is planned that the Scottish Constitution will have protection for the NHS enshrined within it.  Alex Salmond: “With independence we have the golden opportunity to enshrine Bevan’s founding principles for our National Health Service in the written constitution for Scotland – publicly-owned, clinically-driven, and freely-delivered equally for all – a guarantee that not only will the NHS be kept in public hands, but that the services that are free to access today will be free to access in the future. Constitutional protection for the NHS is our promise to generations yet to come that in the Scotland we seek no one will be denied medical aid because of lack of means. The NHS is the at the heart of our nation, and I want it to be at the heart of our constitution.” Such an idea would not be unique: 9% of the countries in the UN have constitutional protection for free healthcare, 38% guarantee the right to medical care services, and 14% guarantee ‘public health’.

It is for these reasons that there is strong support for a ‘Yes’ vote in NHS (Scotland): as the breast cancer surgeon Dr. Philippa Whitford notes (and Andy Burnham has echoed), the NHS will not exist in England in 5 years time. And, because of the links described above, in the event of a ‘No’ vote, NHS (Scotland) will not last much longer than that.

 

“In five years England will not have an NHS as you understand it, and if we vote No, in ten years neither will we.” (Dr. Philippa Whitford)

‘No-stradamus’ – Looking into a ‘No Future’: Turkeys Voting for Christmas?

There are a few specific threats coming that a ‘No’ vote will render unavoidable. One is the further cuts that the coalition government have planned. Of the 6 billion pounds cut to Scotland’s welfare budget, 70% have yet to be applied by their 2016 deadline. The Child Poverty Action Group estimate that a billion of those cuts still to come will directly affect children, pushing a further 100,000 of them into poverty in Scotland by 2020.

Another is the end of the Barnett Formula. This is frequently presented as Scotland getting a higher per capita spend, even although Scotland (along with London and the SE of England) is one of the three parts of the UK that contribute above the average – which means that Scotland gets less back than it puts in by £500 per capita. This means that the Barnett Formula, which calculates the Scottish Government’s block grant on the basis of expenditure elsewhere in the UK, is politically popular, and supported by all facets of Westminster. It has been indicated that a review of Barnett will not be implemented before the next general election, and that it will involve a reduction of the funding received by Scotland to be replaced by a ‘needs-based formula’. The degree of cuts envisaged range from a conservative £4 billion, but on a per capita basis the ‘£1,200 extra’ often cited equates to a £6.4 billion cut.

A third is the reduction of the numbers of Scottish MPs, which has often been tied in to any further devolved powers, along with the end of the Barnett Formula. From 1885 until 2005 (when a readjustment of Scottish MPs was made in the wake of the establishment of the devolved parliament) the representation of Scottish MPs was over 10%, reaching a high of 12% during the inter-war years. The 2013 review will reduce the number of Scottish MPs from 59 to 52 for the next general election: this 8.67% representation amongst the 600 in Westminster is almost down as low as the 8.06% level when the Union of the Parliaments first took place. This means an increasing marginalization of a Scottish voice, at the same time as fiscal strength of the Scottish Government is damaged through ongoing welfare cuts, the ending of the Barnett Formula and paying for the setting up of a Scottish HMRC.

A conservative estimate will put the ongoing loss at more than £10 billion to Scotland, from these advertised changes, as a direct consequence of a ‘No’ vote – a cut that we do not need to take at all. This is what the choice of dependence means over independence – to be weaker collectively than we would be standing on our own two feet.

So are we going to be turkeys voting for Xmas?

Because there is an alternative.

On Monday February 3rd 2014, the Financial Times (not exactly a supporter of Scottish independence) produced an item on the financial situation of an independent Scotland, using UK government figures, and concluded that every individual would be almost £1,400 a year better off from Day One. They demonstrated that the Scottish Government would immediately have some £7 billion a year on top of the existing Scottish budget of £64 billion – and that was conservatively assuming that the government of the newly reindependent state would retain the UK government’s existing spending priorities.

 

“An independent Scotland could expect to start with healthier state finances than the rest of the UK” (Financial Times, February 3rd 2014)

“On 18th September, 2014, between the hours of 7am and 10pm, absolute sovereign power will lie in the hands of the Scottish people. They have to decide whether to keep it, or give it away to where their minority status makes them permanently powerless and vulnerable. So where do we stand at one minute past ten, at 10.01?” (Jim Sillars, March 2014)