The IFS paper.

Here are my thoughts after reading and re-reading the IFS paper.

As the IFS report assumes same tax structure and rates (un-changing over 50 years) and policies and spending as rUK will occur in Scotland than the actual message it produces (rather unintentionally) is not the one they intended.

After all if the policies stay the same that’s pretty much making their Scotland analysis unchanged for Scotland as constituent nation of the UK as it is an independent nation.

The report is in effect “neutral” in the sense the Scotland projections and forecast apply equally to either outcome of the #indyref

If we become independent and, for some unknown bizarre reason, we follow exactly current UK austerity, taxation and immigration policies we see a decline as oil production decreases.

If we stay in the UK (and current UK policy etc doesn’t change) Scotland is in exactly the same situation. Only without the means to address any of these issues – control over tax policy, immigration etc

So there’s a projected decline over 50 years based on the assumption we wouldn’t do anything to encourage growth or build a diverse and competitive economy. Or do anything that would work. (Which is kinda a “we’re just useless argument).

OR

There’s a managed decline within a UK increasingly London centric in it’s views. A Scotland that would truly become a “subsidy junkie” and likely end up resembling something like a nation as retirement home.

That’s the implication of the way the IFS have constructed their report and the assumptions they have based it on.

Advertisements

Dangerous Rhetoric

Stayed up late to watch the STV coverage of the Donside By-election, which was against the odds actually quite good given previous By-election coverage. A jovial, if argumentative panel chewing over the issues without the enforced seriousness that you often see on the BBC. One particular topic struck me: the poison and bile of online social media.

Here once again the spectre of the “Cybernat” reared it’s ugly head and again the idea that it’s an issue specifically affecting those of the nationalist or SNP persuassion.

Without irony Anas Sarwar congratulated the SNP for putting forward a vision of civic as opposed to ethnic nationalism. Seemingly he has had a Damascine conversion since describing the Scottish parliament as “undemocratic”. He also must be aware of the comments of various Scottish Labour types (Ian Smart and Ian Davidson come to mind) who like to portray Scots Nats as xenophobic or fascist.

It’s an easy go to for some Unionists. It allows them to paint their opponents as something scary. As something to be feared and avoided. But it presents the Cybernat rhetoric they indulge in with a serious problem.

They are creating a straw man based upon ethnic nationalism and xenophobia. Creating an environment where Unionist supporters regularly throw around baseless allegations of xenophobia and bigotry at their opponents. Yet they only want the electorate and media to focus on the small number of internet numpties who bang on about colonialism or about folk not really being Scottish.

Let’s be clear Cybernats do not exist, and have never existed in, a vacuum or a world where every political supporter of the Union is reasonable and set upon for no reason. They live in an environment where folk think nothing of calling them racists, fascists or bigots. An environment where it’s ok to attack and vilify them  because a very deliberate political narrative has been built around them being nasty people.

Nationalists are not, by and large, nasty people.

Devolving Blame

Today Scotland on Sunday reported on what Kenny Farquahson tweeted would be  a “game changer” in the Independence debate. That Game changer?

Devolving housing benefit to Holyrood.

However it is hard not to see that as a gross overselling of the headline grabbing announcement as in reality it seems nothing else than devolving the actual payment of housing benefit is involved.

The article states:

“A senior government insider told Scotland on Sunday that devolving housing benefit is now a strong possibility.

“I think there is a feeling that as far as non-financial matters are concerned, there is not much more that can be devolved and the balance is about right,” he said.

“That leaves taxation and welfare, and we have to look at where we can feasibly devolve more. There is an argument for devolving income tax further because the principle of devolving is in place with the most recent reforms.

“It is difficult to see how welfare could be devolved, but housing benefit is a possibility given the issues that have been raised about it recently.””

Note that there are “arguments” that income tax could be further devolved but that in terms of Welfare only the most toxic and unpopular coalition policy (of many toxic and unpopular policies) is set to be devolved. Does that strike no one else as a little odd?

Many in the SNP govt. have already responded to the proposals with the classic “Jam Tomorrow” line but I think objections should be clearer and more realistic than this. I do think the coalition would devolve bedroom tax but I also believe that they wouldn’t devolve the tax or revenue policies required to mitigate the bedroom tax.

They don’t want Holyrood to show the policy up as an unnecessary and ill thought out mess. Rather I think they want to trick Holyrood into validating it. They want to trap the current SNP administration or future Labour administrations into having to make “touch decisions” on funding to prove that housing benefit and the bedroom tax really are spending priorities for a Scottish Govt. I suspect they believe that when the public sees the cuts that have to be made in other places – to the NHS, to the police or fire services or whatever that the tide will turn. That cutting other services to allow for the dreaded bedroom tax to be consigned to the dustbin of history (without giving the option to cut the likes of Trident or Scotlands contribution to UK defence) will be to politically painful in the short term for any Scottish government to actually implement. Or if they do devolve some limited tax raising powers than they want to be able to sit back and watch as people turn on the vulnerable and disadvantaged (who they have failed to build homes for I might add) when taxes are raised. One would hope this wouldn’t happen but I suppose in Tory world the thought that we are all individuals powered by venal self interest seems a very powerful one. It’s hard not to consider that they are setting Holyrood (whoever is in charge in 2016 following a No vote) up for a fall.

In reality this just seems to be a more officious example of Scottish Labours Bedroom Tax plan. One that turns the Scottish Parliament and Government into little more than “buffer” for Westminsters welfare cruelty. Where we have to pick and choose between vital public services without having full control over large swathes of government funding.

Or if you like Scotland would be allowed to tinker with Tory welfare nonsense around the edges but only by choosing to spreading the pain over other services rather than addressing Scotland UK defence subsidy or nuclear arms tax.

This proposal seems to be one that challenges the Scottish Parliament to make “tough choices” in an essentially rigged game. If we could cut just our defence spending we could afford a much better society: a more equal and fair one. But by throwing us this one tokenistic welfare policy without the ability for us to turn around and say “we will fund it by not giving you cash to renew trident” or to spend less on defence (or equivalent other reserved areas where the benefit to Scotland is questionable) it seems to me to be…

Well in the words of Admiral Ackbar – “it’s a trap”.

Better Together and your data

I noticed this tweet from BBC reporter Raymond Buchanan earlier today:

This concerned me greatly and made me wonder if Better Together’s troublesome relationship with data protection was set to continue and if perhaps something worse was afoot…

The Better Together campaign have already fallen foul of the Information Commissioner for failing to register its operation in advance with the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) an oversight which put  directors Alistair Darling MP, Tory MSP David McLetchie, Labour MSPs Jackie Baillie and Richard Baker, and Scottish Liberal Democrat, convener Craig Harrow at theoretical risk of prosecution.

Then there was the case of the Better Together Text messages which also concerned. Some issues with which are outlined in more detail in this blog but summarised below:

Worryingly the text messages use the persons mobile phone number as their unique identifier. More worryingly, as was discovered by some folk on the internet, you could enter anyone’s mobile into the URL and answer the data as if you were them. Hardly a secure means of gathering or storing reliable data on voting intention and a potential nightmare for data protection legislation.

There was some question as to whether this qualified as marketing and someone in the comments provided an answer: Quoting from the ICO guidance:
“Are all telephone calls by political parties ‘marketing’?

4. No. Not every telephone call is a promotional call. A political party can conduct genuine research by telephone just as professional market research companies do. Parties should, however, be careful to ensure that their calls are not in reality soliciting support under the guise of research. For example, a call which starts by seeking opinion and then urges support or invites contact with a candidate would be prohibited. Those who have registered with the TPS do not wish to receive unsolicited calls and are likely to expect political parties to observe the spirit and letter of the law”

Given the campaign text encouraged people to support and get involved with the Better Together campaign I think they were again on shaky data protection ground here.

For the above reasons I am somewhat concerned at the news that Better Together have obtained information from Experian credit regarding Scots voters eligible to vote in the Independence Referendum next year. But I have further concerns that are noted below:

1. Experian holds information obtained from lenders and companies who these voters have contracts with. It is often a condition of accepting these contracts that your details will be passed on to third party credit reference agencies.

There is no direct means, that I can currently see or find, for which someone can give direct consent to Experian for them to share the personal financial and demographic data they hold on individuals to a third party. Does this disclaimer apply across parties? Does a third party have license to sell data to another third party?

2. The Better Together campaign are sharing “canvassing” data between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties involved in the campaign. Is this Experian data included? By virtue of simply taking out a loan, applying for a credit card or for paying your bills does that mean that a political party could end up with details of your personal financial data?

All in all this looks to have the potential to be very, very dodgy indeed. Though perhaps within the law.

Hopefully someone with some knowledge of data protection law, principles and procedures will be able to advise?

Brave(heart) New World

Dystopias have long provided authors of speculative fiction the ability to hold up a “black mirror” to modern society and expose, by exaggeration, it’s flaws and the possible dangers of following a certain path.

HG Wells “When the Sleeper wakes” and Karel Capeks “R.U.R” gave us a vision of an industrialised future where humans were mere robots and machines. Cogs in the machine of a plutocratic global capitalism. Their dystopias informed by the expansion of industry, war and revolution.  Huxleys Brave New World likewise explored the industrialisation of the production line and a fear of the creeping influence of American culture in Europe. Farenheight 451 shows us Bradburys fears, and arguably perennial fears of every generation, that culture is being dumbed down and destroyed by modern leisure technology.

Perhaps the most famous dystopia is Orwells 1948 and it is less a vision of the future and more a vision of a never ending present. The Second World War becoming a neveending conflict. Orwells world is not one of the far future but of the extended present.

In line with the classic dystopia as a warning of the sins sown in the present being reaped by the future, the more I think about it the more I think people’s fears about the UK are being transposed  that of an independent Scotland.   That Scotland will become more xenophobic, isolated/isolationist, unfair/ unequal and have less international clout. It will become a small irrelevance on the global scale. Surely this is simply a reflection of anxieties about “Great” Britains declining influence and role on the global stage? Rather than a genuine concern that an independent Scotland will follow America into more illegal or at least morally dubious conflicts?

If we consider the other “issues” raised against Scottish independence the pattern seems more stark and more obvious.  Pensions – still a problem in UK. We have an ageing population and our reaction has been, somewhat laughably, to rage against further economic migration and (at a UK wide level) a populist “retreat” from the “failed Europen project”. (As an aside anyone opposing Independence as its a betrayal of the UK working class should really notice the contradiction in using that argument alongside an anti-EU stance. As it’s a far bigger betrayal to write off the workers of Europe in favour of the workers of these worryingly isolationist islands.)  Oil volatility – Still a problem in UK. A no vote doesn’t stop oil prices changing. Won’t get us an oil fund and won’t stop the oil running out in the end. Do we want to become the subsidy junkies the media have portrayed us as when that happens? Do we want to find other selves kicked out of a Union on the basis of the kind of views Kelvin Mackenzie promotes and propagates?  Defence – Still a problem in the UK. The UK military is too large and there are plans afoot by 2020 to vastly reduce troop numbers. In an independent Scotland there would probably be around 15-20,000 troops based in Scotland. Under the Union, by 2020, there would be 7,000.  There are countless other examples. Fears about centralised government, taxation and so on and so forth.

All of which makes me think the “fears” folk have about Scottish independence are just the fears they have about the Union but never voice.  A possible independent Scotland is being portrayed by the No side (project fear if you like) as an exaggerated black mirror of the UKs current situation.  They aren’t scared of uncertainty, they aren’t scared of change.   They are scared that everything will at best stay the same  and at worst get a lot worse.

Our job is to convince them that things get worse with No not Yes.

Holyrood Skeptics

Hello folks.

This is a post about an idea I had in my role as president of Edinburgh Skeptics which is an apolitical organisation that arranges monthly book clubs, social and quiz nights as well as talks on all manner of subjects related to science and superstition. I thought that, particularly in light of the Indyref, a lot of folk would be interested in taking an evidence based look at the claims made surrounding the Independence referendum next year. However after much discussion we decided that this could risk compromising the perceived political neutrality of EdSkeptics and that this would perhaps be better achieved through another group working alongside Edskeptics but separate from them.

Thus the idea of Holyrood Skeptics was born.

Holyrood Skeptics seeks to emulate “Westminster Skeptics” a group established in London to “promote an evidence-based approach and critical thinking in the areas of policy, media, and legal reform.”.

The group, now sadly inactive, have held events featuring some of the following:

  • Dr Simon Singh, Dr Ben Goldacre, Dr Peter Wilmshurst, and Nick Cohen on libel reform
  • Dr Evan Harris MP and Prof David Nutt on evidence-based policy-making
  • Suzanne Moore, Laurie Penny, Anna Chen, and Mark Lewis on thinking critically about the mainstream media
  • Prof Brian Cox on science policy
  • Juliet Jacques on thinking critically about transgender issues
  • Dr Petra Boynton on sex and the media
  • Brian Deer on MMR and research fraud
  • Heather Brooke on Freedom of Information
  • Paul Lewis on explaining the English riots
  • Dr Brooke Magnanti (Belle du Jour) on Biometrics and Identification
  • Graeme Archer on Statistics and Policy Making
  • Richard Peppiart, Joanne Cash, and David Allen Green on phone hacking and tabloid ethics
  • Guido Fawkes, Slugger O’Toole, Conservative Home, and Liberal Conspiracy on political blogging
  • Martin Robbins and Gimpy on science blogging

I think that a similar group in Scotland, offering talks, panel debates and similar events, could be quite popular and would also be quite useful to bring both sides in the IndyRef together and sift through each of their arguments critically. But more than that it could grow into a group that could and would debate wider political issues in Scotland above and beyond the IndyRef and hopefully serve as a neutral grassroots effort to engage folk with politics.
I would propose that the group held one/two meetings a month (perhaps a talk and then a debate on a relevant political issue) in a pub or similar venue and if possible stream at least the audio of any debate events live and try to engage folk via social media who can’t make the events themselves. I am based in Edinburgh should would likely wish to host it here, but there is no reason (if folk put themselves forward) that it couldn’t take part all over Scotland. Well no reason other than time and effort I suppose!

If it developed a reputation as being a neutral source for political evidence, information and debate than I think it could do much to engage folk with politics.

Herein lies the rub. I am obviously not politically neutral in IndyRef terms. I am a fairly passionate campaigner for Yes. For something such as Holyrood Skeptics to work I think it would need a “steering group” of sorts featuring people from as much of the Scottish political spectrum as possible.

So this is in essence something of an appeal: I

  • Is there anyone out there who also thinks this would be a good idea?
  • Is there anyone who would be willing to help advise or organise such a series of events?  (Preferably folk whose political persuasion differs from mine)
  • Is there anyone would would be willing to put forward candidates for talks and debates? (I’d be keen to avoid politicians and political hacks in favour of academics and experts mind)

Please get in touch by leaving a comment below if you think this is something worth pursuing and doubly so if you are interested in helping out.

A pragmatic nationalist

I come from the North East of Scotland the nationalist “heartlands”. But it was by no means certain I would become a nationalist.

 
My parents are both left leaning progressive Scots. My Dad was a flying picket for the only union that bet Thatcher (the teachers EIS IIRC though I could be wrong) and both my parents protested against all manner of things that make me proud. From cuts to public services to apartheid. 
 
I wasn’t raised with any particular political ideology though. Though I was raised to think and the virtue of fair play was instilled in me.
 
Before I could vote I sat up to watch my first general election result with my Dad. The closest he ever got to political tribalism (at least in front of me) was to smile and cheer when the final results not the Scottish mainland were announced and the Tories were wiped out electorally in Scotland. This made quite an impression on me.
 
It also strikes me that before Barak Obama was a disappointment Tony Blair got in their first.
 
Like my Dad I started voting SNP pragmatically. Labour couldn’t beat the Tories where I was but the SNP could. I started off as a tactical voter with a vague idea of what the SNPs actual policies were.
 
Later I would discover, on the whole, I agreed with most of them. I don’t agree with all SNP policies to this day but I still agree with most of them. They remain the party closest to my own political views and position that is realistically electable. 
 
 They are not always as far to the left as I would like (sometimes they are a bit too New labour for my liking) but they are a better fit for me on the left than a Labour Party that is (compared to my politics) resolutely centre right.  When I say there is not much difference between blue and red in UK politics it’s because from where I am standing they do look very close together.
 
Though I accept that may be a result of perspective more than anything else. The economic consensus perhaps slants my view…
 
Anyway, I’m rambling a little here and risk losing site of my point. That is to say I started off as a “pragmatic nationalist” and so I remain.
 
It is not some romantic “Braveheart” motivated politics that maintains my belief that Scotland (and the rUK) could be better if the union ended. It’s a combination of all manner of little practical things and concerns that reinforce my position.
 
At one level I have concerns about the very nature of democracy in the “mother of parliaments”. How in the 21st century can we still have an upper chamber filled with unelected peers? Former political grandees, bishops and the like?
 
Why has no one managed to reform the House of Lords? There seems to be no appetite for it within the Westminster system and that is distinctly worrying. It also seems to be little more than a minority concern for most Britons. Which is something of a bigger worry.
 
I also worry about the influence Whitehall and the civil service wield over our democracy. I worry that they encourage a kind of politics that sees solutions in legislation as their primary instrument. Rather than perhaps addressing roots causes we create new laws. Something of a “something must be seen to be done” rather than doing something. I would hope an independent Scotland would avoid this sort of politics.
 
I worry about the current political consensus. As the UK drifts ever further from the modern social democracy I would wish it to be. The drift is happening in Scotland to but the figures from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey show it is less advanced and might be easier to reverse. 
 
I also think that by doing so we can provide inspiration and motivation to the left and centre in the rUK and their electorate. A successful independent Scotland (and I see few reasons to think it wouldn’t be) would be a powerful weapon in a rUK lefts rhetorical armoury: “if they can do it why can’t we?”. Billy Bragg convinced me of that in the progressive patriot – a book about a “new England” that I think a lot of Scottish nationalists will recognise as being informed (at least in part) by our own brand of progressive civic nationalism.
 
I have concerns about defence. Whatever the results of the referendum I would like to see the UK/Scotland have a smaller and more practical military. More specialist and less an overblown relic of the Cold War. A military that can be deployed for peacekeeping but not war. That can defend but not attack.
 
I don’t care about international strength when it involves wars of dubious legality and misjudged interventionism.
 
In short I would like to live in a country that used it’s words not its fists.
 
I have concerns about cuts and inequalities. Thus the yes campaign appeals. As do the actions of the SNP in Holyrood. 
 
I believe universal benefits have social and economic benefits above and beyond the rhetoric of “something for nothing”. Where small, probably tiny, savings can be made not giving people who don’t “need” benefits. Where we can avoid further enshrining a two-tier culture of have and have nots. Enforcing an insidious culture where people resent those who need the help of the state. A culture of strivers versus scroungers.
 
I also happen to reckon the administrative cost of means testing benefits would vastly offset any savings… As well as subjecting people to a humiliating process which I suspect, as happens in taxation, those it is intended to remove benefits from would quickly find accountants willing to make the inevitable loop holes work for them.
 
I worry about a political system where all parties feel the need to be seen to be “tough”.
 
Tough on crime (bad on civil liberties).
 
Make tough decisions on spending but avoid making the same tough decisions on taxation. Or if you prefer taking away from the vulnerable and poor as opposed to taking it from the rich.
 
To expand that point I don’t want to live in a country where those who have more than they “need” (be they a company or an individual) can hold HMRC and the government to ransom by making empty and idle threats to take their tax elsewhere.
 
I believe one voice in 5 million odd is louder than one voice in 63 million odd.
 
I also believe that two independent voices closely aligned on the world stage is stronger than one voice with an unfair and controversial veto.
 
I am a pragmatic nationalist.
 
Scottish Nationalism is in effect an engine that offers the opportunity for change for everyone on these islands. I think it’s likely it would be change for the better in the long run.
 
I am a pragmatic nationalist. 5 million people can take a chance for something better for many, many millions more.
 
I think we should take that chance. Not for “freedom”. Not because of “colonial” nonsense narratives. 
 
But simply because it makes simple pragmatic sense to me. It fixes more than it breaks.