Thursday, 21 November 2013

Just for reference: fifteen MSPs to fire

Yesterday was surely one of the Scottish Parliament's finest hours. A non-partisan, thoughtful and often moving debate took place on the principles of gay marriage, as MSPs prepared to vote on legislation for the first time to make equal marriage a reality.

For the first time in my life I found myself roundly applauding and agreeing with  both Ruth Davidson and Jackie Baillie. I half expected to see a pig whoosh past my window into the night sky.

While the first hurdle to enacting this legislation was passed by a pleasingly crushing 98 - 15, just as a point of reference, here are the fifteen who voted against homosexual couples having the right to marriage:

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar - SNP)

Gavin Brown (Lothian - Conservative)

Roseanna Cunningham (Perthshire South & Kinrossshire - SNP)

Nigel Don (Angus North & Mearns - SNP)

Fergus Ewing (Inverness & Nairn - SNP)

Alex Fergusson (Galloway & West Dumfries - Conservative)

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland & Fife - Conservative)

Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland - Conservative)

Richard Lyle (Central Scotland - SNP)

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston - SNP)

Jamie McGrigor (Highlands & Islands - Conservative)

Nanette Milne (North East Scotland - Conservative)

Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland - Conservative)

Elaine Smith (Coatbridge & Chryston - Labour)

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland & Fife - Conservative)

While we're at it, there were also five abstentions, but perhaps they just couldn't make it. These things happen. If you want to see who they were as well, you can do so here.

I'm not trying to start a witchhunt, by the way. I'm just reprinting these names as a point of reference, namely for the purposes of the 2016 Holyrood Election. Unfortunately, a significant number are List MSPs. Nonetheless, they all need to go in 2016.

As Alex Neil pointed out at yesterday's debate, naysayers can no longer hide the "protections" gambit - the rights of religious bodies and celebrants have been fully respected and protected within the bill. The only reason to oppose gay marriage in Scotland now is simply because you don't want it in principle. It saddens me that in twenty-first century, outward-looking Scotland, some of our elected representatives still try to impede equality - albeit less than 10% of them.

My uncle has been with his partner for thirty years. In fact, I call them both "Uncle". I think I was around fifteen or sixteen when they had their civil partnership ceremony. It was a beautiful service out on Arran. I remember I was certainly under-age for drinking alcohol, but somehow wound up quite drunk.

They're the same as any married couple I've ever met. They love each other the same, they bicker the same and at the end of every day they go to bed in the same bed.

I don't respect, nor have any time for, anyone who would deny them the rights of any two people who love and care for each other to have that reflected in law, equal to any other couple.

If you feel the same, remember the fifteen who said No. Because they need fired.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Fun fact #1

In the political and media maelstrom of the debate over Scottish Independence, lots of facts and figures get bandied about. Some of them reflect well on the potential of independence, some of them reflect poorly. Personally I am of the view that, stripped-down and unspun, the facts and figures lean heavily in favour of the positive potential of an independent Scotland over the negative. But I also feel, as I know many others do, that the Scottish media doesn't reflect this - far from it. It in fact heavily emphasises and promotes the bad over the good.

Bask in the good news...
I can see where other pro-independence people are coming from when they cry foul and talk of institutional biases, but while these probably exist up to a point, journalism has always been about trumpeting bad news over good. They judge that their audiences generally aren't all that interested in hearing about how great everything is, and to be honest, they're basically right.

But in the case of independence, the need to get the good news out has never been more urgent, because the bad news if we don't is remaining tethered to a corrupt, inadequate political and economic system. This is where a lack of balance from the media has really let us down.

I want to start a bit of a running series of posts here - where, per post, I put forward one nice, simple, positive fact-nugget about Scotland, that ideally says something about its viability as an independent country.

Here's my first effort.

Fun fact #1:

In other words, in this era of global scarcity, Scotland trades favourably with three of the world's most vital commodities.

Scotland has an electricity generating capacity of over 10 GW. Its renewables sector continues to rapidly grow, while its thriving oil and gas industry supports over 100,000 jobs. Scotland is an energy-rich, energy-independent nation.

Our food and drink exports industry, meanwhile, has exploded over the last decade, with the industry now comprising around one-fifth of Scotland's entire manufacturing workforce. It may even challenge oil and gas in the coming years as Scotland's most dominant export.


Healthy net exports represent self-sufficiency. They often lead, as it would in the case of an independent Scotland, to an overall trade surplus. Meanwhile, the UK on the whole is a net importer of all three of these commodities, while lagging behind many other Western nations with its large trade deficit.

It really is difficult to exaggerate the potential benefits to a small economy of an abundance in these three resources - which along with clean water, another natural resource Scotland enjoys a huge bounty of - are surely among the most important commodities of the twenty-first century.

I know it's supposedly not in-keeping with our national character, but we can indulge a touch more optimism sometimes.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Currency, currently

Currency demands 'should be set out,' read yesterday's BBC Scotland's Politics headline.

Darling piles on pressure over Scots currency after yes vote, cried the Herald.

Salmond under pressure over currency plan, said the Guardian, as agreed by The Telegraph, who added Salmond needs a Plan B.

Goodness me, something must have happened, right? Over the last couple of days almost every news outlet in Scotland has some kind of story relating to "pressure" on the Scottish Government over currency plans; why, Mr Salmond must be veritably red-faced and sweating under the strain of it - nobody likes a Darling pile-on, after all. There must have been some kind of significant development, surely?

The short answer is no. The No campaign are really reachin'.

What we have here is a concerted rehash of old arguments, from multiple fronts. The No campaign like these kinds of arguments, because they're very likely to be the ones that go round and round in circles right up until the vote. The reason for this is because the current Scottish Government's proposal for a formal currency union with the UK is one of those takes-two-to-tango situations. The UK government has no intention of even talking about tangoing, on pretty much any big issue, until after the referendum.

The SNP's position on currency has not shifted one iota from what they first proposed in 2011. Due to the UK's policy, as articulated by David Cameron, of not "pre-negotiating" Scotland's potential exit from the UK, any theorising on the pros and cons of the SNP's currency proposals is entirely speculative. We know with no certainty that the UK government would agree to a formal currency union. We don't know what conditions they would try to attach if they agreed to such a pact. We don't even know if we'll be dealing with the Tories as we are currently or with an administration led by Ed Miliband.

But, of course, speculating is fun. And I think we can have a good stab at all of these questions.

I'll get the last one out the way first before tackling the other two: it is my opinion that Labour are going to get a doing at the next General Election. I say this with zero relish, because the alternative is another five years of Cameron. With any luck we won't have to deal with that in Scotland, but one can only sympathise with the English, Welsh and Northern Irish. I base this theory on the fact that Ed Miliband's personal approval ratings have been consistently dire, and indeed yesterday's Ipsos-Mori poll but him 2 points behind David Cameron at -23. Sadly for Mr Miliband, we live in the age of personality-driven politics. To contextualise this, no leader of the Opposition with these kinds of personal ratings has ever won a General Election, and certainly not a year and a half out from said election. Two years out from the 1997 General Election, for example, Tony Blair was sitting pretty at +20. The best Ed can hope for is a hung Parliament within which he cobbles together a coalition, but even that I consider unlikely given I expect the Conservatives to be the largest party.

What this means is that, even taking into account the 2015 General Election, I suspect we'll be dealing with a similar sort of Government to what we are now in the event of post-Yes negotiations.

So back to currency, there are a few excellent reasons - analysed in detail by much wiser economists than me, not least the Scottish Government's own Fiscal Commission (including Crawford Beveridge and the Nobel Prize-winning Joseph Stiglitz) - why the UK should accept a formal currency pact in the event of Yes vote. The first, and most obvious one, is trade continuity. Reciprocal trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK represents a significant portion of each economy.

The second is to protect Sterling from the dangers posed by the overnight doubling of the UK's balance of payments deficit which would occur were Scotland to leave the Sterling zone. Scotland's Oil and Gas exports alone boost the UK's current account by some £40 billion, never mind its formidable Food and Drink exports industry. With the UK's balance of payments deficit as a percentage of GDP already sitting at an eye-popping 4.4%, the myriad problems that would arise were this figure to begin encroaching into 10% territory - a figure unheard of among industrially developed nations - could wreak havoc on interest rates, mortgages, lending and investment, and potentially even cause a run on the pound.

The third is to ease the political transition. The division of assets and liabilities within post-Yes-vote negotiations will be messy enough; surely it would be better and more transparent if the two countries' respective debts were denominated in the same, stable currency?

So I think they'll probably go for it. But what if they should impose overly-stringent conditions?

Well, for starters, a formal currency union would likely contain fiscal stability clauses, but that cuts both ways. It would also be a good thing. Let's remember, however, that the UK's debt-to-GDP ratio is higher than Scotland's. The UK's economic recovery has been slower than Scotland's. Even the UK's spend on welfare as a percentage of the budget is higher than Scotland's. Such a pact would be mutualist by definition; the UK would have no leverage to impose stringent conditions on Scotland that it didn't impose on itself. Finally, we return to the possibility that were conditions considered too onerous by an independent Scotland's negotiators, they could simply say "no."

The No side like to argue that a currency union would not entail "full independence". Monetary policy would be controlled in another country, they say. True - but crucially, by an operationally independent regulator. Moreover, given negotiations for fiscal stability would cut both ways, and the relatively strong position Scotland would have within such talks, it seems unlikely that we couldn't sweet-talk our way into having Scottish interests in some way represented on the Monetary Policy Committee. Which is a damn sight better than what we have at the moment.

The reality of the twenty-first century is that no nation on Earth has "full independence", and it is foolish to think in such absolutist terms. The rise of supra-national institutions and the increasing trade integration of globalisation means that the pooling of sovereignty is more a part of international life that at any point in history. The crucial thing about pooling sovereignty is that said sovereignty is volunteered optionally. Scotland has never previously had this option. It's the kind of decisions sovereign countries make.

But as Simon Johnson in today's Telegraph puts it, having wheeled out everyone's favourite sniper-from-the-sidelines Jim Sillars: what is Salmond's Plan B? Without a Plan B, Jim Sillars helpfully suggests, he, and presumably all Scots, are "snookered."

He's going to be snookering you tonight

This is all part of a drive from the Better Together folks and their friends in the media to force the Scottish Government into putting forward alternate plans for a separate currency, in which event we'd all be lucky to ever hear the end of how embarrassing a "U-turn" the SNP had made.

The Scottish Government ain't going to bite. Their currency plan A is: use Sterling. Their currency plan B is: use Sterling.

Trinidad and Tobago could start using Pound Sterling tomorrow if they wanted. It is fully tradeable, and fully convertible. About the only recent development I've seen in the currency debate is Alistair Carmichael's intervention. The new Scottish Secretary suggested that the UK agreeing to a currency union was "very unlikely." As far as I know, he's the first to say such a thing. Whether it was just bluster he made up on the hoof, pre-referendum politicking by the Coalition, or genuine UK thinking on post-Yes negotations remains to be seen.

Let's say, for sake of argument, that the UK will cut off their nose to spite their face and decline a formal currency union. Scotland's Plan B would simply be to use Sterling informally, as the Irish did for decades. It would hardly be ideal - we really would have no control over monetary policy in that case, but according to the No campaign, we wouldn't have any within a formal pact either so what's the difference?

The only sure result would be a swifter transition to an independent Scottish currency. Like many in the Yes movement, such as the Jimmy Reid Foundation and the Scottish Green Party, I support a currency union as an interim arrangement only. How long this transitional period should last is a matter for bigger brains to consider, but I don't support jumping into an independent currency straight off the bat. It's not that I don't think we could, just that things are going to be politically disruptive enough after a Yes vote without adding disruption to trade. Let's walk before we can run, eh? Privately, I imagine many in the SNP leadership will feel similarly. At the moment, proposing an initial currency union is sensible politically and economically. For the time being, the UK and Scotland's economies remain fairly convergent in terms of productivity, and as a result a currency union should be a stable transitional arrangement. But as the economies diverge as they inevitably would post-Independence, it perhaps would become less prudent to keep the Bank of England in control of interest rates while the UK, say for example, continues to engineer a property bubble in the South-East.

For the current and succeeding UK governments, all refusing a formal, mutual pact on currency would do would make the transitional period between Sterling and an independent Scottish currency that much shorter. A currency union buys the UK time. Time to get its bewilderingly low production and excess consumption in check. If the UK decides it doesn't want to do that, then by all means Scotland can speed up the establishment of an independent currency and wave back from the horizon at London as it sails off into the sunset with a trade surplus.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

We could have had a better tomorrow

You should all be a touch annoyed today, if, like me, you happen not to be particularly keen on the bedroom tax. There are many reasons to dislike the policy. It works punitively against society's most vulnerable whilst exacerbating existing problems around social housing, such as the fact that there's not enough of it. It's causing hardship and distress in hundreds of communities while having no positive broader social impact.

As such, the Labour party tabled a motion in the UK Parliament yesterday to repeal the bedroom tax. Labour, of course, recently announced that they would abolish the bedroom tax should they win the 2015 General Election, and most Scottish Labour MPs have been sharply critical of the policy, given its especially keen unpopularity north of the border.

Pamela Nash MP for Airdrie and Shotts said in March:

"It is hard to believe that the Tories could ever come up with a policy which could be more hated and cause more devastation than the Poll Tax... The Bedroom Tax seems designed to attack the vulnerable. It is more than just ill-conceived; it is positively vile in its intentions.

"Labour support sensible welfare reform but the Bedroom Tax is just plain crazy."

Badly-thought-out, unjust, nasty and unworkable - I find it impossible to disagree. Do any of her Scottish Labour colleagues? David Hamilton, MP for Midlothian, had this to say:

"It (the bedroom tax)... will penalise pensioners, foster families and military households," and moreover, "will not solve under-occupancy" as well as possibly increasing homelessness. He described how he had opposed the motion that initially introduced the policy.

Ann McKechin, MP for Glasgow North, was even more emphatic in an article she wrote for The Glaswegian, calling the bedroom tax "draconian" and stating it should be "scrapped before it causes any more havoc."

Jimmy Hood, MP for Lanark and Hamilton East, writing for the Hamilton Advertiser, blamed the Scottish Government for failing to "meliorate" the suffering the bedroom tax was causing local communities for reasons of political capital, all "whilst doing the coalition's dirty work."

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown MP - when around - has been more comfortable to talk of the measure's "postponement" rather than outright repeal, but chimes with his Scots Parliamentary colleagues, dubbing it "offensive, onerous, unfair, arbitrary."

Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy MP has been extremely critical of the bedroom tax on the grounds of rules within the legislation regarding its effects on military families, calling it "a betrayal of promises made."

And perhaps most memorably, Scottish Labour deputy leader and MP for Glasgow Central, Anas Sarwar, was so ardently opposed to the bedroom tax that he announced, live on national television, Labour's plans to repeal it - a full two weeks before Ed Miliband officially made the pledge.

So what we seem to have here is unanimity of feeling among most Scottish Labour MPs. They all seem to take an unfavourable view on the bedroom tax, and in most cases have made unequivocal calls for its abolition along with their party. Great. Ideal. Guaranteed to put in a vote in favour of yesterday's Parliamentary motion then, right? A motion that, just to reiterate, would have ended the bedroom tax if it had succeeded - that is to say, removed it from law.

Each of the 7 Scottish Labour MPs quoted above failed to turn up to vote or abstained from the vote for the bedroom tax's repeal. There were 3 others in Scotland on top of that: Frank Doran, MP for Aberdeen North; Brian Donohoe, MP for Central Ayrshire; and Douglas Alexander the Shadow Foreign Secretary (in fairness to Mr Alexander, he got in touch on twitter to say he'd been in Auschwitz as part of an official delegation to highlight the dangerous rise of right-wing extremism across Europe. This is about the only half-good reason I've heard so far).

Meanwhile, across the UK Parliamentary Labour party, over thirty more of their MPs also failed to vote, including 9 London-based Labour MPs (how hard could it have been guys?!). In fact, the total number of Labour abstentions yesterday has been clarified as 47.

That is almost one-fifth of Labour's entire Parliamentary group - failing to vote on a Labour motion, failing to vote for what is going to be a flagship policy of their 2015 General Election manifesto, and failing to vote on an issue with enormous importance for hundreds of working communities.

Abstentions happen. They can be explained away, sometimes even with good reasons. Excuses have already been pouring in from Labour's rank-and-file. We'll get to them shortly.

This motion in the Commons yesterday lost by just 31 votes.

Thirty-one. We were just thirty-two votes away from never having to deal with one of the most iniquitous, dunder-headed policies ever conceived in modern Britain, ever again. The reason this wasn't possible? Because almost fifty Labour MPs didn't care enough to make this Commons vote a priority. Including Pamela "Bedroom Tax Just Plain Crazy" Nash. Including David "Will Not Solve Under-Occupancy" Hamilton. Including Ann "Scrap It" McKechin, Jim "Betrayal" Murphy and Gordon "Onerous" Brown.

Including Jimmy "Doing the Coalition's Dirty Work" Hood. Do you see, Mr Hood, how the suffering you talked about could have very decisively been meliorated yesterday? But it's alright, I'm sure you had better things to be doing.

If I sound annoyed, it's because I am. Are we to presume that the Labour party had no idea how close it would get in the vote? That's what political parties have whips for. Are we to assume in the case of a vote of this importance there's absolutely no way the PLP could have bucked the "pairing" convention? Are we supposed to be relaxed about such a blatant missed opportunity, one which could have improved the lives and well-being of thousands of citizens and marked a positive change in political and social direction?

This notion of a "pairing" system is dominating the Labour spin machine today - the odd idea that MPs on opposite sides of the benches can be paired up with one another in order to "balance" any debate or vote, and that if one half of a pair decides he's not going to go along, the other half, by convention, does the same. Labour's logic is to say that if their abstainer MPs had showed up, more Tories would have shown up too, and the result would have been the same.

But hiding behind Parliamentary procedure isn't going to fly on this one. Indeed, the UK's own Parliamentary guidelines state:

"Pairing is an informal arrangement and is not recognised by the House of Commons' rules."

There is absolutely nothing compulsory about the pairing system. It is entirely optional. It is entirely a convention, not a rule, and as such can be waived. Furthermore:

"Pairing is not allowed on divisions of great political importance."

So not only is pairing not mandatory, it is actually against the rules to use the system on important political issues.

What happened yesterday is more than just not good enough. This has happened too often to be dismissed out-of-hand as just: "poor effort, must try harder next time." Does the bedroom tax no longer constitute an important political issue for David Hamilton MP? He was happy to tell us all in his newsletter how gallantly he'd opposed the motion that initially introduced the policy. Does it not constitute an important political issue for Anas Sarwar MP or Ann McKechin MP? In May of this year, The Independent reported that the Government had seen a 338% increase in emergency discretionary housing payments made out to struggling citizens only one month after the introduction of the bedroom tax. Glasgow City Council saw the largest number of claimants in the entire UK. So what else did you have to do yesterday, Ann, Anas, that was more important an issue for your constituents than the Commons vote?

The difference this time is we actually could have won this fight. It would have been a victory for the hundreds of communities dealing with the spectre of arrears, mounting debts and evictions. It would have been a victory for the thousands of social justice campaigners who have dedicated so much time and energy all over the UK rallying against this most compassionless of policies.

Maybe the Labour apparatchiks are right. Perhaps, even without pairing, the Coalition would have caught wind and whipped a few more of their MPs into voting against the repeal. Maybe there was never any hope. Maybe we would have never won.

But defeatism is no excuse for failing at solidarity. Win or lose, had every Labour MP united yesterday in the Commons to oppose the bedroom tax, it would have sent its own message. This exact message, actually, as articulated by Chris Bryant, MP for the Rhondaa:

"It's time for Ministers to repeal this cruel and unfair policy. If they don't, Labour will."

Naturally, Chris Bryant couldn't make the vote. His reason? "I was paired with a Tory."

Yesterday, our representatives could have voted for a better tomorrow. It wouldn't have shaken the ground at your feet, but it would have been a much improved situation for some of the most vulnerable in society. It hasn't materialised. 32 of the 47 Labour MPs who chose to abstain could have changed that outcome. Remember it well.

If Labour MPs aren't willing to fight on behalf of working communities and social justice when it matters, then what is the point of them?