Reflections on the UK Social Security System

Welcome back to the LiberalismFive blog- apologies to any regular readers, if indeed there are any left, for long periods of silence. I confess work pressures have kept me from regular blogging, despite the surfeit of developments! Rather than comment on the obvious, such as Brexit, I offer a few brief comments this time on an interesting report on the UK’s social security systems.

The Resolution Foundation Report

‘Poverty now declines with age: children, working-age adults and pensioners have relative poverty rates of 30 per cent, 20 per cent and 16 per cent respectively, meaning children are now almost twice as likely to be in poverty as pensioners are.’

I’d recommend a look at this report from the ever-excellent Resolution Foundation– one of a series of three looking at the UK – the others being the size and shape of the UK state, and the changing nature of the UK tax system.

I’m no expert on the social security system and normally I’d offer more detailed commentary but I wanted to offer a few short reflections as we begin a new parliament under a new government:

Seems to me reading the report that there are a series of things needed:

– in-work and out of work benefits need to be made more generous- and wouldn’t be that expensive to do given what a modest percentage of total welfare spending they make up
– more generally, £10-20bn per annum is needed to reverse a decade of cuts to the system and remove some of the harsher, nasty things – benefits cap, 2 child cap, rape clause, pegging rent support to market rates
– the DWP’s staff capacity and size needs increases in preparation for the next recession 
– a recognition is needed that despite improvements, that the use of sanctions,3rd party assessments and other conditionality is too arbitrary and demeaning (and leads to misery and death sometimes) 
– the growth in child poverty is a disgrace and needed reversed- and is massively counter-productive anyway on purely economic grounds 
– the growth of incapacity amongst the under 35s needs a public health and mental health policy response – it won’t be fixed purely via adjustments to welfare. We should be thinking about use of green space for wellbeing, the impact of social media, wellbeing programmes at work and much greater funding for mental health within health systems.

I doubt we will see more than some modest increases under the Tories but I hope we do. Two further points:

– the usual claims that the U.K. is rubbish from Scottish independence supporters have some force in this area, but not always for the reasons they seem to think. Seems to me the evidence suggests that if you include private pension provision, free healthcare and other in-kind benefits, then the U.K. social protection system at an aggregate level is above average in terms of its generosity across the OECD. But where the criticism has force is (a) the low levels of cash benefits relative to income especially for work and out of work benefits (b) the nature of the conditionality introduced over the last 10-15 years is populist, demeaning and not fit for a society aspiring to treat everyone with equal concern and equal respect 
– the system needs a positive vision for the future and needs to think about the balance across age groups, and also between conditionality, universality and the use of the contributory principle

Brexit- Where Are We Headed?

Back in December I gave my view on key Brexit developments and where we were headed. With yet another key vote coming up next week, it seemed a good time to give readers a view on where we are and where we might be headed. If I may say, my predictions are so far looking quite sound, so here goes again.

Rather than go through all the ins and outs of the various votes since December, I’ll try and give an overview of key options and where I think we’ll end up. As ever, predictions can be difficult and Brexit has a habit of making prognosticators look foolish…

Before I do, its worth reminding ourselves of the apparent (and alleged) significant criminality associated with the Brexit vote. See for example- this  or this– though there are many more alleged failings and dark connections. As you’ll see below, I think we will exit the EU, but how tragic if it turns out a close vote was stolen. It tells me that, if we are to use referenda to decide signifiant issues, we must be MUCH tighter on the franchise, the rules, and the enforcement of those rules, and MUCH clearer on the grounds under which a result can be struck down, who should move to strike and who should decide and on what grounds.

I also want to remind you, dear reader, of my suggested principles to inform what the UK does on the Brexit issue:

  • we must respect the result of the referendum, so that a second referendum should only proceed if it is considered legitimate and can be done well in time (in terms of process, electorate etc.)
  • we must also respect the rule of law, so regardless of how difficult it could be, if evidence of abuse and illegality is persuasive then the result must be quashed 
  • we should try, if we can, to take a middle ground that respects the result, but also respects how close the result was. As far as possible, extremes on the debate (no deal, Hard Brexit etc.) should be avoided. 

Onto the main business….

Key Developments?

There have been quite a few debates, amendments and votes in parliament since the autumn. What do those votes tell us?

Firstly, they tell us that various factions in parliament will unite at various times to oppose Mrs May’s deal unless it changes, though please understand that those groups come from very different starting points and have VERY different objectives.

Secondly, as predicted in my earlier blog, there is no appetite for an election just yet, and Mrs May will want to stay on to see things through. So an election is probably coming, but not until post-Brexit.

Thirdly, we finally had the parliament show, albeit rather timidly, that it doesn’t want a No Deal Brexit, and will take action if needed to ensure that doesn’t happen. Now there are two other factors which mean we can’t be certain we won’t crash out in a ‘Bumbling British Brexit BallsUp’, but I still think No Deal is unlikely. [The two factors are nervous Remainer MPs, particularly Labour MPs in the North, not wanting to be seen to look like they are obstructing the referendum vote result , which is why Yvette Cooper’s amendment was defeated, and secondly, the automatic operation of the law, which means we leave by statute on 29th March unless something else changes].

Fourthly, as predicted, there is zero chance of a second Scottish independence referendum any time soon [and that’s ignoring any ongoing criminal cases I might otherwise mention]. The SNP is caught in a bind, both secretly fancying a disastrous Brexit to aid their cause, and also fearing a disastrous Brexit will weaken their case [on the second point, just think how naive 2014 promises to leave the UK in 18 months now look, and how hard to persuade many votes if the UK has a poor future relationship with the EU- think currency, hard borders, trade relationships etc.]

Fifthly, Labour has finally made it clear that, as we thought all along, Corbyn wants Brexit done so he can move onto his dream of socialism in one country, with the Tories blamed for (most of) the Brexit mess. Polls may yet frustrate Corbyn’s ambitions and pin some blame on him, especially amongst his younger hitherto voters, but for now he feels confident enough to show his hand.

Which is why the letter to the Prime Minister, and Keir Starmer’s interviews recently are so significant. You can read the BBC’s take on the politics of it here

So What Are The Options..?

There remain quite a few possible options for Brexit but let me quickly rule some out:

  • No Deal– I still think this can only happen by accident, and that there is enough will at UK and EU level to avoid this-so very unlikely (I hope)
  • Current Mrs May deal– dead in its current form, as a 230 vote defeat showed!
  • General Election– at the recent votes showed, Labour doesn’t have the votes to force an election, SNP don’t want one at the moment and Tories will only vote for one if they think it helps (and it currently doesn’t until Brexit is complete)
  • Second Referendum – this is possible, but unlikely at present I think. Parliament will only go for it if it feels genuinely stuck, but despite appearances and as I will explain in a moment, parliament as a collective beast really does have a plan (two in fact)

Ok, that’s cleared a few possibilities off the slate, leaving in my view only two. Let me remind you what I was suggesting in my last blog:

‘So, it is very clear that whatever happens, we are now heading for a much softer Brexit than might have been apparent in 2017, or even 6 months ago’


It seems clear to me that behind any minor tinkering, the EU is NOT going to renegotiate the legally binding withdrawal agreement’


Now the future relationship is an entirely different issue, which is why I think parliament will accept withdrawal and we will leave the EU as expected. ‘

I stand by those comments, and a cursory glance at the EU’s comments reinforces that view.

The Two Realistic Options

So, here are my suggestions for the two Brexit options still on the table (and remember I’m still focused on how we leave, not our ultimate long-term destination):

Option 1 Mrs Mays Deal Version 2

Option 2 Labour’s New Plan

Option 1 is an updated version of Mrs May’s original withdrawal agreement- with all of the changes focussed on the crucial backstop issue. For this to succeed, Mrs May would either need to secure enough further concessions from the EU on the terms of the backstop to secure the votes of all of her party, a handful of Labour rebels, and the DUP, or enough MPs would need to get nervous of a No Deal crash-out as the clock runs down, and decide to go with this deal, either to avoid no deal, or no Brexit. Indeed, Keir Starmer suggests that running down the clock is Mrs May’s real game.

My own view is that there is little chance of securing further concessions from the EU (quite rightly) for this to ever convince recalcitrant back benchers like the ERG group. The EU feels it has already had its fingers burned by supporting Mrs May before, only to see the deal she promised she could deliver, rejected and crushed. I don’t feel that are in any mood to offer anything substantive in the last few weeks.

In addition, if you are Labour, why would you ever give up the chance of splitting the Tory party and giving the Prime Minister the credit for securing a deal, when you know you can (probably) extend the leave date and secure your own plan?

So, I just can’t see Mrs Mays deal version 2 passing.

That only leaves us with Labour’s New Plan. Now, of course Labour’s plan is (almost) entirely Mrs May’s plan, with one significant addition- that of a permanent Customs Union. I’ve felt for some time that a permanent Customs Union is the only realistic means by which the UK can deliver 3 otherwise conflicting objectives:

  • reclaim some measure of control of laws and borders whilst also
  • ensuring peace and no hard border in the island of Ireland whilst also
  • not adding a new border in the Irish sea

Don’t get me wrong, I am still firmly of the view that Brexit is a bad idea, not only economically, but also for the signal it sends about our relationship to our closest neighbours in an increasingly fractured and dangerous world. But as per my principles I set out above, I firmly believe that a measured Brexit, that respects the closeness of the result, and keeps us as close to the EU as we can whilst still leaving, and protecting the Good Friday agreement, is the best way forward.

Remember of course, that Customs Unions only deal in goods, not services, and with 80% of the UK economy made up of services, a permanent Customs Union still allows the possibility of services trades deals to be struck. I think most British voters also want to protect the food and environmental standards we have, so fair trade deals that lower them are non-starters really, despite a lot of hysteria about chlorinated chickens and so on.

[There are other conditions in Mr Corbyn’s letter to the Prime Minister but they are less significant]

I can’t see Mrs May, an ultra party loyalist, accepting the Labour plan, as it would split her party. However I can see parliament taking control on a free vote in February/March and making this new plan the basis of the UK’s future relationship.

Intriguingly, it does seem to me in an opposition vote or free vote that the majority of Labour MPs, plus 30-60 Tory MPs, and with either the support or the abstention of SNP/LibDems, has a chance of succeeding. Though it will be very close and tense

Incidentally, having watched the UK parliament in action several times over the last few months, I came away impressed and proud- the very opposite of the lesson most others seem to draw. I saw a group of elected representatives wrestling with a difficult problem and seeking compromise and a way through, despite terrible leadership from the main parties, and despite a fair minority of nutty and reality-denying chancers. If we as ‘The People’ voted almost 50-50 on one of the most complex problems I’ve ever considered in politics, and if we always call for compromise and debate, I wonder why so many of us consider the parliamentary debates to be so faulty?

Summing Up…

If I’m right, we’ll know much more clearly in the next few months where Brexit will take us. If I’m right it won’t trigger an immediate general election, nor will it trigger a second referendum on Brexit, nor will it trigger a second Scottish independence referendum.

If I’m right, as I said some months back, some version of the Withdrawal Agreement will pass, I just don’t think it will be Mrs May’s preferred option. I now think Labour’s New Plan or a version of it, will carry the vote in parliament, adding a permanent Customs Union to our future relationship.

I think we will leave on or around March, possibly extending into the summer to get the necessary laws and arrangements passed. I think an election follows in 2019 or 2020 where parties set out their views on where we go next. I think we have some years yet of wrangling over the future relationship, and that the issue of our relationship with Europe won’t away in the medium to long-term.

Are there any positives for a remainer like me? Yes, firstly we’re heading for a softer Brexit. Yes, the potential way emerging offers the chance to shape new fishing and agricultural policies and presents a huge opportunity for a fairer and more environmentally sustainable approach. I also think (with Keir Starmer continuing to shape Labour’s approach to free movement), we have some chance to shape a fairer, less harsh and more sensible policy for the UK on immigration and freedom of movement.

The downsides remain fierce- less investment, loss of confidence and our status within the world and the EU diminished. Having to accept laws we shaped but didn’t shape all that much. Losing the right to move to other EU member states when we retire, and the loss of many EU citizens who no longer feel welcome. Plus we can expect a raft of hard cases as the fate of EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU are decided.

But, after 3 years of angst, I can see a more positive picture emerging and a chance to put endless Brexit debate beyond us eventually. Or more realistically, Brexit may not be the sum total of our political debate come 2020 or 2021.

Finally… the bigger picture …

People like me must accept the result, but that doesn’t mean the reasons people really voted for Brexit have gone away. A combination of duplicity and dark money, illegality and magic solutions thinking, a feeling of our leaders being remote and out of touch, a need to preserve communities and ways of living and a sense of loss, and multiple other reasons have fed the Brexit fire.

When, inevitably, actually leaving doesn’t solve these issues, we need to be ready with positive, progressive and more radical solutions…

5 Developments, 4 Real Options, 3 Red Lines, 2 Court Cases and One Very Significant Amendment- Christmas Reflections on Brexit…

Christmas Reflections on Brexit 

Things continue to be as busy as ever so I’ve yet to fulfil an intention to blog more regularly. But with the key Brexit vote coming up  (probably), I couldn’t miss the chance to offer you some pre-Christmas Brexit reflections. So here goes…(and yes I am aware how febrile things are so these thoughts may date VERY quickly). 

Before I do, let me set out some key principles that I believe must drive the debate:

  • we must respect the result of the referendum, so that a second referendum should only proceed if it is considered legitimate and can be done well in time (in terms of process, electorate etc.)
  • we must also respect the rule of law, so regardless of how difficult it could be, if evidence of abuse and illegality is persuasive then the result must be quashed 
  • we should try, if we can, to take a middle ground that respects the result, but also respects how close the result was. As far as possible, extremes on the debate (no deal, Hard Brexit etc.) should be avoided. 

Five Interesting Developments…

So the first interesting development was reported in the Sunday Times recently. What happens if the key Commons vote on Mrs May’s deal goes ahead and she loses?  The Sunday times has kindly produced a rather complicated flowchart, but let’s focus on a May defeat. Well, she could of course decide to resign but I think that’s unlikely due to her own peculiar view of duty and severe pressure from colleagues not to hand it to the likes of Johnson. Labour will immediately call a vote of no confidence to try and trigger an election but will clearly fail, as few Tories will want to risk a Corbyn government. At the same time, many may be very unhappy with May for a variety of reasons so there is a chance that clever use of amendments can separate the political colour of the government from its leader i.e. a vote of no confidence in Mrs May but not the government. Possible but unlikely I think, given the uncharted waters it would lead us into.

Speaking of uncharted waters, my second development was the hat trick of defeats for Mrs May last week was pretty unprecedented, the worst series of commons defeat in a single day in 40 years.  

Included in that was my third development, the unprecedented vote to find the government in contempt of parliament, and forcing the publication of the Attorney General’s legal advice on Brexit (and of course triggering another certain type of Brexiteer to find an excuse to go into melt-down over the Irish backstop again). 

My fourth interesting development, watching from Scotland and as someone against Scottish independence, was a tacit admission from the SNP that referenda may require a second confirmatory vote. Of course the First Minister was talking about Brexit, but what is sauce for the goose and all that…

Finally, and relevant to below, are two sets of comments. One, of the idiotic and disgraceful kind from Priti Patel, (the idiot’s view of what a clever person is), illustrates just how insensitive, narrow of view and poorly informed about history some Tories can be. 

More seriously the second set of comments from the leader of Norway’s European movement, shows how complicated all the options are, and how enmeshed with uncertain legal questions everything is. Because if the UK does need to apply to EFTA, these comments don’t suggest it will be an easy task. 

OK So Given All That, What Are the Options?

Ok, enough with the developments already (and there are many more!), and on with the show. Here is my view of the 4 realistic options on the table as I write:

Option 1 Mrs May’s Deal

Option 2 Norway Plus 

Option 3  A Second Referendum, the So-Called People’s Vote 

Option 4 No Deal- Leave the EU on 29th March 2019

Now, Option 1 doesn’t appear to have many friends and looks likely to face defeat if voted on tomorrow. I’ve been saying for some months that I think the government will simply be seeking to avoid a massive defeat at this stage and to buy time for continued discussions to win over Tory rebels and a few Labour rebels with various concessions.

I’d expect under this Option, a defeat of less than say 80 votes would see Mrs May go back to Europe to seek and receive some (presumably pre-agreed?) concessions from the EU, alongside continued stern warnings that a fundamental renegotiation isn’t possible. I agree with that view about renegotiation, (subject to several giant caveats below- because I don’t always think people are talking about the same thing here).

[Sidebar- remember Mrs May has negotiated 2 things- a legally binding Withdrawal Agreement signed off by EU members, and a political declaration of the future relationship. ]

Now I don’t think (originally) that this was entirely the terrible strategy that everyone else seems to think. Mrs May, as a Remainer at heart, but out of a sense of duty combined with hubris and terrible negotiating skills, and terrible early advice, has tried to leave the EU whilst keeping as close as she can. However I do think events I discuss below mean this strategy is close to dead. 

Which leads me to Option 2 so-called Norway Plus. Under this option, the UK would stay inside/rejoin EFTA, whilst also staying in the Customs Union.  

Advocates would say it has several advantages- we technically do leave the EU, but we retain membership of the single market and customs union. We are also not subject to the rulings of the ECJ directly. And although in a customs union for goods, we can still negotiate trade deals with the rest of the world for services. And we are out of both the CAP and the CFP, which people like me coming from a sustainability perspective, tend to be supportive of. 

Opponents have quite a bit to say on this option too. Firstly, the UK would be subject to the rules and laws of the EU, without much say (there is some influence but nothing like under full EU membership). Secondly membership of EFTA means accepting freedom of movement, a key perceived reason why people voted to leave the EU. Thirdly, we still have to make contributions to the EU budget (albeit 10-15% lower). Fourthly, being in the customs union means no global trade deals on goods except as part of the EU negotiations. And finally, ok technically we’d not be subject to ECJ rulings but in practice the structures look very similar. 

Others are suggesting Norway Plus might be a good interim option whilst the UK figures out what its long term desires are- in or out. I’m of that view, whilst being aware it’s a bit disrespectful to EFTA members, and a hard sell to them (Hey we’re a giant economy, let us join your smallish trading club then we will decide whether we want to stay or not…)

Alot may turn on whether the UK is still a member of something called the EEA alongside EFTA, or whether we have to apply for membership. And as the comments above from Norway suggest, this could be difficult and would require time. So, whilst I can see the benefits of Norway Plus, I do wonder whether its a realistic option in the timescale we have prior to leaving the EU. 

Option 3  The People’s Vote- A Second Referendum.

Although I still think this is unlikely, it is becoming more and more feasible. Under various scenarios mapped out, there is no majority in parliament for any option, just as there seems to be no majority amongst the public either: for Mrs May’s deal, staying, no deal or a Norway Plus option. At that point, MPs who up to now have been worried about being seen to ignore democracy, may feel it is time to let the people decide and to hold a second vote. 

There are some reasons not to do this. Firstly, the last Brexit vote was hardly a paragon of good practice in terms of campaigning, voter registration and rights. The lack of time to get this done by end March is a real concern. Some worry that even the suggestion of a second vote risks violence and unrest, or more likely just reinforces the view of those who feel dispossessed that the elite will always ignore their views. 

I don’t think there is a real risk of major violence but I do think we must take seriously the concerns about how Leave voters will feel and react and the potential (further) loss of confidence in our political system and voting itself. This isn’t an idle worry, as research tells us

None the less, on balance I do think a second vote is a realistic and credible option. In my view, major referenda making a major change should always require a second confirmatory vote once the terms are known (and I think a threshold of 55% or 60% should also be required- either to join something or to leave it). That said, we are were we are, and despite being a strong EU supporter, I think the country is better served if an option can be found that respects the 2016 vote whilst limiting the damage done. 

Option 4 No Deal 

Under this ‘option’ the UK simply leaves the EU with no deal and tries to manage the chaos caused by this as best it can. Whilst a bunch of dafties on the right wing of the Tory party think this is credible, nobody with any concern for the economy, society or our reputation agrees, and so it has zero chance of happening and I won’t give it any more time. 

3 Red Lines 

In the early stages of Brexit if you remember, Mrs May set out her position on Brexit, a position that rapidly become known as hard Brexit, and was very contentious because it wasn’t clear that people voting Leave were clear themselves exactly what they were leaving, given the conflicting views from the various Leave campaigns themselves. The details vary but my take is that Mrs May indicated there were 3 red lines:

  • Leaving the single market and customs union in order to prevent freedom of movement and regain control of EU immigration, alongside the ability to strike global trade deals
  • No longer be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice 
  • regain control of UK law making and particularly budgets i.e. limited or no contribution to EU budgets 

Now the reason I mention these again, apart from the fact that I think they were wayyyyy too absolutist and closed off plenty of decent options (Mr Timothy I’m blaming you for your crap advice at the time despite your protestations now) ,is because they determine what options are possible for a future relationship. Change the red lines, and you change the possible relationship with the EU. Something we’ll return to in this already long post!

Two (Ok three) Court Cases

Very significant in all this, is one court case that attracted alot of attention, and two that haven’t. The first earlier this week came from a challenge from a collection of Scottish politicians, and effectively hands sovereignty back to the UK in stating that the UK can univocally revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU if it wishes, as long as this happens before the leave date. 

This is a VERY big deal as it effectively allows the UK to cancel Brexit if it so choses. Incidentally, the handing back of sovereignty is coming from an EU body – ironic don’t you think? Congratulations as well to Jo Maugham and the GoodLaw project for making this happen.  

The second court case was on whether the UK, when notifying departure from the EU under article 50, was also notifying departure from the EEA under article 127 of the separate treaty. These blog posts explain what I am trying to say here, here and here. My understanding is that the case was lost (or rather not really taken to a ruling), and so Option 2 above is harder than it looks, but serves to show how complex and multi-dimensional Brexit is, the real importance of law in these debates, and also how law and politics intertwine. 

The final really important area is tied to evidence of multiple breaches of the law by the various Leave campaigns, and whether they are serious enough to warrant the referendum result being quashed by a Court. That’s about as serious as it gets, and I don’t mention it lightly but it is surely the case that we need to know if we are planning to leave under false pretences because someone or some organisation ignored the rules and effectively stole the result. The details of the Court case are here, and here is a link to evidence from a leading academic, as well as multiple evidence lines from the tireless Carole Cadwalladr. Now at this stage we await the case’s outcome and the outcome of criminal probes, but if nothing else two things are clear. One, we really need a ruling on whether the verdict of the referendum should be quashed soon (!) and two, we really must tighten both the rules and  the enforcement of the rules, and understand far better and far more quickly the consequences for our democracy of these sorts of breaches, which often have looked technical and rather dry. In that respect, we are very similar to the turmoil the US is experiencing over possible Russian interference in its elections. 

One Amendment- But A Very Significant One..

One of the defeats Theresa May suffered that I mentioned above, if you can remember back that far dear reader, is the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s amendment handing much more control to the UK parliament. The amendment was passed, which means instead of the previous ‘take it or leave it’ offer that Ministers has insisted on (or the Sinatra approach  if you like- My Way or the Highway…), we now have a situation where MPs can effectively instruct the government which deal to propose and take. Or, as a minimum, that a no-deal option is off the table as parliament won’t vote or accept that. This is why as I said above Option 4 is effectively dead, and Option 1 including Mrs May’s original tactics to get it through, are also probably not going to work. After 2 years of a rather supine parliament, I’m glad it seems to be waking up and taking back control, to borrow an expression. 

OK That Was Really Long- Can You Now Cut to the Chase…?

With thanks for sticking with me this far, time to now try and draw the threads together. Events of the last few months have made the picture both much more complicated and more clearer. So let me try and offer some closing thoughts on what happens next. 

Firstly Option 1 does look dead as an immediate option, with the vote either delayed or lost. That’s partly because of the Article 50 court case allowing the UK to cancel Brexit, combined with the Grieve amendment, and together effectively kill off no deal as an option, whilst therefore removing a key plank of Mrs May’s ‘Sinatra approach’ (if you don’t vote for my deal, you might get no deal or no Brexit). Option 4 is dead for the same reasons. 

So, it is very clear that whatever happens, we are now heading for a much softer Brexit than might have been apparent in 2017, or even 6 months ago. Incidentally in my view that kills off any ‘Scottish option’ and with it, any remote prospect of a second referendum. In truth, the Scottish option was always a non-starter, for the reasons I list here

Secondly, it’s clear we need any lingering doubts about the validity of the result put to bed, and soon. And in future we need much stronger thinking, rules and consequences concerning any foul play in referenda that we call. 

Thirdly, it seems clear to me that behind any minor tinkering, the EU is NOT going to renegotiate the legally binding withdrawal agreement, despite the fantasies of Mr Corbyn. Why not? Well partly because it was taken 2 years to negotiate, partly because the EU has bigger fish to fry (hello immigrant crisis, Eurozone issues, Italian deficits and the rule of democracy in Hungary).  No, unless we decide not to leave, the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement are set. Now I can’t pretend to understand all the intricacies linking the withdrawal and political documents, but I’m not sure they matter very much ultimately. 

Fourthly, that’s why I think in some shape or form, unless the stars align for a second referendum (which I think has only a 30% chance- up from 10% a year ago) , then parliament will find a way to pass the Withdrawal Agreement. That’s because of the Grieve amendment, with the new set of understood ‘rules’ in place, Parliament can now drive the future relationship. 

Now the future relationship is an entirely different issue, which is why I think parliament will accept withdrawal and we will leave the EU as expected. However after that I think things will change again and potentially in quite large ways. 

So, fifthly, I think Mrs May will survive in the short-term, long enough to see Brexit happen and for others to allow that to be ‘on her’, for better or worse. At that point, I think the Tories will move quickly to replace their leader with a moderate figure who will look to reset things, aiming at a much softer Brexit. I don’t think Labour can force a general election, but it is possible a new PM, with a new withdrawal agreement in hand aimed at 2021, will go to the people in 2019 or 2020. That’s about as far as my crystal ball will go but I am effectively predicting that the next UK election is about the terms after transition, with the UK having left, but with various forms of soft Brexit on the table.

The red lines will be replaced, perhaps this time with more consensus and discussion and less haste, against a background of a ‘Brexit bonus’ budget from spring 2019, a clear appetite amongst the public for rising spending and a  flummoxed SNP looking for new reasons to be aggrieved. There will be ongoing lack of clarity over the exact post-Brexit relationship but with a clear direction towards the softer end. That’s partly because concern over immigration is falling. And with falling concern and rising spending, UK politicians will have more breathing space to be a little more expansive about the future relationship. And partly, because the rise of Trump and the populists makes the EU and international partnerships look just that little bit better to some…

So, Brexit won’t mean the end of Brexit because if I’m right, 2019 really does bring Brexit but also a new PM, a possible general election, a new set of red lines, a new start on the future relationship, and lots of discussions about Norway Plus verses a Canada style FTA and so on. Expect the transition to go on beyond 2021 unless EFTA can be agreed quickly. Expect a decadal long debate about whether we were right to leave and towards the end of the 2020s, a debate about whether to rejoin.

And finally finally, where does this leave those who voted for Leave as a way of showing their concern over loss of control, of a political system not working for them, over the erosion of their rights and sense of community as immigration changes communities and traditions, and as a rejection of rising inequality. I’m afraid it doesn’t really put them (or us!) in a great place. So I’ve said before, these are crucial issues, but I’m afraid Brexit was never going to address them in the way people expected. Brexit is surely the ultimate wrong answer to the right questions…

Reflections on the First Minister’s Recent Speech…



Apologies to any blog readers (any still around?!)  for the long silence since my last blog post. To some extent that reflects a very busy time personally and professionally. But it also reflects a lack of time to work through the more fundamental ideas I wanted to explore here. I’ve been thinking alot about capitalism, marxism and liberalism- more to come one day hopefully.

So, with no promises, I’ll try and pick up again more regularly…

Meantime, some thoughts on the First Minister’s recent speech, particularly around Brexit.

Reflections on the FM’s Speech

The First Minister spoke recently to her party conference- you can find out more here.

1. Much to Agree with…

There is much to support in the speech (fair work, nursing bursaries, gender action, exploring public infrastructure etc etc). But if the truth be told in normal times these are pretty standard centre-left social democratic policies and particularly across swathes of Europe.

Its only because the Tory-led UK government is so obnoxious on so many issues that announcing these policies makes SNP/Scotland seem exceptional. That combined with a particularly virulent strand of right wing press and swathes of neo-liberal thought across UK/England (parts anyway). And as I like to point out, the perception is both real and apparent, with many of the claims about the UK from independence supporters poorly informed or flatly untrue.  See this for example pointing out that regional inequality isn’t just a UK phenomena, and this which corrects much recent comment on the unique levels of regional inequality in the UK.

That said, the point the FM/SNP/independence supporters want to make is that at the moment, UK government actions make Scotland an exception. I tend to agree- although Wales may want to say ‘hold my beer’. And I share their revulsion (if not their undiscriminating) distaste for many actions on immigration, welfare, disability and housing.

Thats all fine as far as it goes, and a centre-left positioning works well for the SNP and has done for the last 5 years. But imagine if a Labour government was elected for the UK for any length of time- hard to see the SNP outcompeting it to the left/centre left isn’t it? And if you take that away, you have you got left? I’d say some rather tedious grievance mongering (another decade of that??), calls for new powers (but that strategy has its limits when the SNP is struggling to master them) and the inadequacies of the Growth Commission– neither very honest as claimed  nor very insightful. But I digress…

2. Brexit and Positioning

No big surprise that the FM said that, shorn of the rhetoric, that she would have to wait for Brexit to be clearer- what other choices did she have?

If she had called for another referendum this side of Brexit, the UK government would just have said ‘feck off’ again. And to be fair to the UK Government, what government, in the midst of something as complex as Brexit, with the polls showing no majority support for independence or no majority support for a call for a second vote, and with the issue being voted on only 4 years ago, wouldn’t take the same view?

You may wish to argue this position from me/UK government is anti-democratic- I wish you well in that endeavour. Worth saying that Scottish elections continue to show a majority of votes going to parties opposed to independence. Worth also saying that we exercised a legal, fair and decisive vote on the issue in a 3 year campaign that finished just 49 months ago

So, if there is no vote before Brexit, I think there is no vote before 2021, because 2018-2020 will be dealing with Brexit and its aftermath, followed by Scottish elections.

In order of descending likelihood, here is my take in Brexit and its consequences for the SNP and independence (short-term then longer below):

(1) Some form of softer Brexit agreed and the UK leaves. Whilst I think Brexit is a bad idea and will affect some sectors of the economy and some people quite badly, any form of fudged Brexit that delays or softens things, means that I bet most people don’t really notice a ‘big’ dramatic change. Just to be crystal clear, I do think any Brexit makes the economy worse and puts pressure on tax income and spending and I don’t mean to downplay its long-term consequences.

If I’m right, I don’t think that helps the SNP or independence – leaving the EU takes the wind out of the objections for many, particularly if it isn’t obviously a disaster, and is quickly normalised as the new position. There may be ongoing campaigns for EFTA membership but its likely hard to sustain much enthusiasm to march for common product standards.

Again to stress, I am opposed to Brexit, but I think this is most likely option. My sense is that the problem  for the SNP and the independence movement is believing their own supercharged rhetoric on Brexit impacts, and I think they are in for a shock if this scenario plays out.

If this approach happens, I don’t the SNP pressing for independence referendum unless the polls change- and why would they? (see below)

(2) The UK crashes out in a no-deal farce lasting 1-2 years. The UK does eventually sort things out but there is serious short-term disruption to the economy (like a really bad storm event but longer) as well as lasting damage.

In these circumstances, many in the independence movement assume many will flock to the independence banner. That may be so, but I think just as likely is that many conclude now is not the time, with some agreeing with the ‘stick to nurse for fear of something worse’ idea.

In any case, in such a scenario there is zero chance of the UK government granting a referendum in the period 2019-2020.

Ironically the harder the Brexit, the harder the economic and fiscal arguments are for independence (just think borders for a moment, or trade).

(3) A People’s Vote is held- and we vote to remain. In which case, the case for independence and a second vote recedes into the distance. Nothing to see here. I suspect this is what the SNP secretly fear as then their project withers and dies for the immediate future. Let’s be honest, in the absence of Brexit, what other even slightly credible excuse for a second vote would there have been? Welfare reform? Nuclear missiles? I think not (see polling evidence).

(4) Some sort of legal challenge, such as halting article 50 succeeds. May steps down, there is a UK general election- I’ve no idea who would win it and on what mandate. But again, there is zero chance under that scenario in my view, that the UK government says bring on a second referendum.

So, if I’m right, scenarios 1-4 don’t seem to generate the mix of political necessity, UK agreement and favourable conditions for any poll before 2020.

3. 2020 and Beyond

With fresh Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, I think there is a good chance that the pro-independence parties fail to secure a majority. If that is the case, no vote before 2026.

If there is no vote before 2026, Sturgeon is presumably gone long before- and I don’t personally see the same talent emerging in the SNP to reach the heights of Salmond and Sturgeon.

Also in a 2026 vote scenario, I find it hard to believe there won’t be a fairly social democratic labour government by then, and some boredom/withering away of independence support in favour of some new political project- especially if Labour regains the centre-left ground. After all the current Labour leadership is shit, beyond shit- what happens if competent people take over? Ok, Corbyn has opened up the political space on the left, but thats as much about people fed up of flat living standards and sick of austerity as it is a real love for re-nationalisation and the rest, and in the ways I measure leadership, he’s absolutely useless.

But what you say, what if the greens do well, SNP recover and a new ‘mandate’ is secured in the 2021 elections. Well much then turns, in my view, on what the polls say.

If the SNP and Greens do get the necessary number of seats, I’d bet they wouldn’t gather more than 45% or so of the vote i.e. the majority would have voted for a party opposing independence.

But they SNP/Greens could also make a decent case that they have a mandate for a second vote. After all, they would command a majority in the Scottish Parliament, even if not a majority of votes cast. However it’s likely they would have a minority at future UK parliamentary elections of the Scottish votes cast, (and possibly seats).

My guess at that point is that the UK government makes a decision based on the polls, as does the SNP. I don’t actually agree with those friends suggesting this is all obvious, high principle and foundational democracy stuff. That the only democratic answer if the SNP/Greens ‘win’ is to grant a second referendum.

Why not? Well that demands a longer answer that I may return to, but let me set out my case briefly…

It’s because we don’t have a written constitution with clear rules about how and when referenda are used. It’s because we lack rules written down, agreed, voted on and embedded about who can trigger referenda, under what circumstances, with what processes and safeguards and with what legal rights for various parties.

In the event of a call for a second referendum, unless the people clearly and consistently wish for a vote, I neither wish that decision to rest with Sturgeon and her successor, nor May and her successor. We’ve seen what happens when a referendum is called casually to deal with a party political problem (Brexit) and we’ve seen how referenda divide as often as they resolve.

So! All to play for in 2020, with the SNP needing to defy political gravity to keep a vote alive- I’m betting they fail…but it will certainly be ‘interesting’

The Catalan Independence Referendum- Some Quick Thoughts

The Catalan Independence Referendum- Some Quick Thoughts…

Apologies for the long silence readers- work has been very busy of late. I hope some of you are still out there ready to read!

I was moved to start blogging again by the scenes of protest and the policy heavy-handed response to the Catalan independence referendum taking place today. Doubtless many news organisations and commentators will lead with scenes like the above, and certainly they don’t look good nor does the police response with rubber bullets seem necessary or justified.

At the same time, the attempts of commentators to suggest Spanish democracy doesn’t exist or is dying seem daft to me. See for example, this piece, for a counter view. I think we can, if we are so minded, easily separate the legal, process and constitutional questions from the daft and counter-productive response to today’s vote by the Spanish government and police.


What’s My View Then? 

Others will have strong views – here are mine:

– it’s a given that if enough people in a region want independence it should be granted
– Catalonia clearly has the geographical and administrative integrity to be independent

However that second bullet is only two of the three conditions needed for independence- the third being sustained evidence of a desire amongst at least a large proportion of the population for it and an agreed, fair, legal and decisive referendum as a means of chosing. If only 5% of the population of an area support independence for example, it seems obvious to me that no such special discussion is required.

Although most of the (limited) evidence I’ve seen suggests independence supporters are in a minority, the levels suggested (35-46%) are indeed enough to suggest that political dialogue (including the option of a referendum over the future of the region) is justified. Perhaps the Spanish government’s response will provoke even higher levels of support.

However, it’s been clear from the start that this referendum isn’t agreed, is de jure illegal and won’t be fair or decisive. The fault for that lies on both sides:

– overall hasty and hubristic action from the separatists- forcing through laws in dubious circumstances with dubious democratic legitimacy and actual ultra vires deployment (misuse)  of the regional parliament
– insensitive, bludgeoning and aggressive moves from the Spanish government

The next steps to me seem to me fairly clear- start talking; explore granting more power and funding to Catalonia; design a new process to avoid the scenes we are seeing today; amend the daft Spanish constitution to allow for separation but specify the conditions and process to allow the courts and politicians a clear road map.

For many wishing independence, any transfers of funds away from their areas to others is often seen as being short-changed, or the central state ‘stealing’ their resources. For the rest of us, its part of the normal role of a unified state.


Relevance to Scotland/UK? 

Final thought- contra the utter nonsense being written by some supporters of Scottish independence – the U.K. may not be perfect and its de jure constitution a mess, but de facto, the U.K. managed a process to allow a fair and decisive referendum. More supporters of Scottish independence should acknowledge that and should be willing to say so, instead of wittering on about further imagined slights. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons to be unhappy about the UK and Scotland’s place within it, but dreaming up fake ones serves no one.

I am a supporter of a written constitution for the reasons I give here, but people who support written constitutions have a tendency to assume they fix all, and that absent them, then a proper fair and democratic approach can’t be secured. I’d suggest the Edinburgh agreement tells us otherwise.


What’s the Difference Between Brexit and the Death Penalty? – The Use of Referenda in Political Decisions

What’s the Difference Between Brexit and the Death Penalty?- The Use of Referenda in Political Decisions Continue reading “What’s the Difference Between Brexit and the Death Penalty? – The Use of Referenda in Political Decisions”

The Rape Clause, Welfare, Needs and Resources..Some Thoughts

The Rape Clause, Welfare, Needs and Resources..Some Thoughts

I’ve been troubled by the recent political debate in Scotland over the rape clause. For those who may have missed it or are not in the UK, the ‘rape cause’ is a section of the UK welfare system bureaucracy which that requires women who were raped and subsequently conceived a child, to complete or have a form completed in order to access welfare payments in the form of child tax credits. Although some have take a different view, for many including women’s groups, NGOs, advisers, child campaigners and progressive politicians, it is self-evident that this policy is wrong. The debate has been particularly fierce in Scotland, and the Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson attacked for her support for the clause whilst all main political parties except the Tories in Scotland oppose it. 

The words I’ve seen used to describe the policy include: abhorrent, vile, inhumane, disgusting, ‘has no place in civilised society’. And I find myself in a place opposite to where I would normally be, disagreeing with people I normally agree with. Because, it is not self-evident to me that the policy is wrong, (but I certainly admit I may be wrong on this). I suspect it is the certainty of others that is bothering me about the issue, and what I see as muddled thinking about fairness. So, in this blog I want to offer a few tentative thoughts.


By Way Of Background 

I am not comfortable writing about a issue so serious as rape and using the debate around it to illustrate broader ideas about fairness. So let me say from the start, that clearly rape is an appalling crime, as much about power and humiliation as it is about sex. And hopefully regular readers will agree that I am a supporter of fairness, justice and opportunity, with at least some radical ideas, such as my ideas on a fair society, support for the poorest or ideas on basic income.

I should also make it clear that I oppose the Tories cutting of welfare payments, I think the coalition government freezes to benefits were a mistake, and I think the entire UK welfare system is in need of urgent reform with a much greater focus on the needs of the least well off.

The clause itself arose from a UK government decision to limit child tax credits to the first two children (note this is from a certain date and applies to new children conceived not retrospectively). In doing so, the UK government then introduced a series of exemptions to make the policy (as they saw it) fairer and more just. Those exceptions include multiple births, adoption and non-consensual conception.

So why on earth would I even pause in my condemnation of the clause, let alone question others on it? After all Kezia Dugdale was widely praised across the political spectrum (a rare thing) for her speech to the Scottish Parliament on the issue. Campaigners say it shames and humiliates rape victims, may set back their mental health in having to relive the experience, stigmatises and picks on victims and lower income families and doesn’t even save much money. After all the number of women with more than two children who are raped and then conceived will be relatively small and the costs of paying them low  (estimates are £20-75m per annum in Scotland) so this is seen as a new low from a despicable and heartless UK/Tory government, one in a long line of despicable, heartless and even evil decisions.


So Why Not Oppose the Clause? 

I’m one of the few non-Tories who isn’t immediately convinced  by the Dugdale speech, or the ‘rape clause ‘ campaign, or why it’s self-evident a 2 child limit for child tax credits is an egregious wrong. If people could bear with me, I want to try and strip out the emotion, and the labelling, to allow me to understand what the arguments are. As far as I can see there are six possible arguments which I list below. I’d like to pick them up one by one and offer a view on each. The possible arguments I can think of are:

1. The requirement for proof is in principle reprehensible?
2. The current or likely plans to implement the testing will be intrusive, humiliating or in some other way unacceptable when delivered?
3. The cap on two-children non-retrospectively in one element of the welfare system is unacceptable either in principle or because of its impacts on family or child wellbeing ?
4. The two-cap limit is just too low?
5. The principle of benefit caps is just wrong and any and all welfare has to be based on need?
6. Some other reason…?


Argument 1- The requirement for proof is in principle reprehensible

This is what is apparently self-evident to most. The argument is that even considering asking women who have been raped to ‘prove it’ is just wrong and sickening. I can certainly see why intuitively people would think so. My problem with this is that if we don’t do so, we are possibly opening up the system to fake claims, which although it may seem callous and wrong to even suggest may happen, is a possibility. And I would point out that for other parts of the system as I understand it, such as criminal injuries compensation, a more intrusive process is required. Now of course two wrongs don’t make a right and those who make argument 1 may simply be unaware of how other parts of the system operate or may not care. I suspect for many people even discussing this is just wrong and nothing I can write will change that, so if this is the reason for objecting to the rape clause I can obviously respect that, whilst I just disagree. In my view, rightly or wrongly, whilst we can and should boost the resources available for welfare, and while we can and should consider alternatives such as basic income schemes, whilst we have the current system, it is legitimate to consider in principle asking  for some form of evidence in order to support claims, no matter how sensitive. However I am talking about that in principle, rather than in practice so perhaps argument 2 is more compelling?


2. The current or likely plans to implement the testing will be intrusive, humiliating or in some other way unacceptable when delivered?

Advocates for women, those who are victims, those who provide support services have all argued that the current proposals are intrusive, and will set back the victims by forcing them to relieve the trauma. I am certainly not qualified to judge this and obviously respect the views of those who advocate for rape victims. If the evidence was compelling that the process proposed had this effect, then I think argument 2 becomes compelling. To date, I’ve not seen evidence from doctors or social workers that suggest the evidence is that. If it did, then yes, I think the proposed system should be changed. But note that argument 2 isn’t saying that asking for evidence is wrong in principle, just that it is wrong in practice. That means, presumably, that if you only object to the clause on practical grounds, you will be willing to support it if the current process can be changed in a way you find acceptable. If it isn’t possible to agree on and find such a system, then I agree the clause should be scrapped.


3. The cap on two-children non-retrospectively in one element of the welfare system is unacceptable either in principle or  because of its impacts on family or child wellbeing ?

This argument would make the claim that limiting welfare payments for children is just wrong in principle. Or that whilst in principle it might be ok, the impacts on families or child wellbeing in practice is unacceptable. I suspect many who feel strongly about arguments 1 and 2 also support argument 3.

Remember that the changes being introduced are not retrospective, so that we are not talking about a situation where current families with more than two children lose these benefits. The situation applies from April 2017 and for new children after that date, and excludes families where, for example, twins were born unexpectedly where two kids already exist.

For information, ONS stats tells us that currently about 15% of families have three or more kids– I don’t have the stats to hand on that breakdown by income decile but am willing to bet that on average poorer families have more kids.

If the policy was being applied retrospectively, I would be opposed to it as it would jeopardise the welfare of kids whose parents had legitimately made plans based upon an expected income level. Now, many advocates will no doubt claim that the removal of the freedom to have more than two children and have the state support that, will jeopardise those future kids’ welfare as well. I want to come back to that below.

But it seems a difficult to me to sustain an argument that a change which applies only to future decisions, and which is argued is just wrong in principle, is clearly wrong and nothing more needs to be said. Why is it wrong in principle? Why is it wrong that the state draws a line beyond which it will not support family decisions made with the knowledge of the rules on support? (Remember we’re setting aside child welfare for now). I suspect people think so because of the impact on children’s welfare or because of their views on fairness, which I tackle below.

4. The two-cap limit is just too low?

I have sympathy with this argument. If many families are already 2-child families, then a 2-child limit does not account well for unplanned pregnancies or loss of income through illness or redundancy, and the evidence is that immigration for the moment is increasing family size. It is on that basis possible to make an argument that a 2-child limit is discriminatory towards immigrants, and as I noted above, it seems likely to me that poorer family are likely to have more children. Indeed this is one of the main arguments made by Alison Thewliss, a leading campaigner on the issue :

“As of midnight last night, a two child limit on child tax credits and universal credit – which is tantamount to social engineering – came into force. It largely penalises families who are already in work, so this has very little to do with reducing the welfare bill but is, instead, an ideological attack on the lowest earning families in our society.”

So it seems to me, a more costly, but also fairer change, would be to make the limit at 3 children- though this would affect a much smaller number families and presumably saves the treasury much less cash, which is why it wasn’t proposed.

But hold on! We’re now a long way from angry rhetoric about policies being vile and disgusting aren’t we? We are now debating changes not in principle but in practice, accepting that the state has the right to limit welfare payments according to public rules, and are merely debating the detail of those rules aren’t we?

Not so fast. I think whilst the debate might be less emotive when talking about the level of the cap compared to the overall rape clause debate, there is still real anger about the change, reflected in Alison Thewlis’s comment quoted above. I think many on reflection might say that the rape clause, shocking as it is for them, is a symbol of the problems with the direction of UK welfare policy, that can be so warped and morally bankrupt as to come up with such obvious outrages and unfairnesses in the first place.

So we now need to discuss the final element of the possible arguments against this, argument 5. Here I struggle but will try and set out what I think as clearly as I can.


5. The principle of benefit caps is just wrong and any and all welfare has to be based on need

If readers have made it this far, my comments may have invited a mix of scorn, hostility, disbelief that a so-called liberal could be even debating these issues, and perhaps a sense that it is wrong for a man to be pontificating on issues like this. To re-iterate, I intend no disrespect to victims, or to women, or those whose expertise lies in supporting them. What I am trying to do is understand why people may feel so strongly about this issue, debate the arguments and offer my views.

In discussing argument 3, I set aside concerns about child welfare arising from the 2-child policy. I now want to consider them directly as part of a discussion about what fairness actually means.

There will always be limits to resources in society, no matter how wealthy or successful. A fair and just society is ideally one where people feel we are genuinely all in this together, that they have the resources, the opportunities and the support from society and government to achieve their ambitions. This includes a proper ‘insurance scheme’ to manage a range of risks that otherwise may overwhelm the individual. I previously blogged on this at length here and here and here:

Equality matters because ultimately, people need dignity and respect, they need the ability to execute their life plan, they need a sense of fairness in all of the rules and institutions and processes of society. ‘

So, we expect and need government to help us deliver a fair society, and we expect and need government to help us manage risks that may otherwise ruin our plans and render our lives worthless.

But note that in any genuinely fair society, we are not promising unlimited resources for any citizen. On the surface, it might seem to be the job of government to make sure its citizens are happy, that they have the resources they need and that their ambitions are met. Many people think that we need to equalise ‘welfare’ or ‘wellbeing’ or ‘success’ or equalise opportunity. But a bit of reflection will show that this is too shallow and glib.

Briefly, if someone has extravagant desires and wishes in order to deliver what (they say) is a happy or successful life, or maximise their welfare, are we as a society through government duty bound to meet those needs in delivering our duty of fairness? If the person in question wants a lifetime of free champagne and cigars and a mansion whilst not working, because he or she says this is he choice of life that will make them as happy as everyone else (and lets assume objective evidence of some kind supports their claim that they are indeed that sort of person that enjoys luxury and hates working), are we required to deliver that in the interests of fairness and equal welfare? No, obviously not, that would be absurd.

Equally, if we start out in society giving people equal resources but some deploy them to increase their skills, success and wealth, whilst others spend them on drinking, surf-boarding and gambling, are we required at a later date to take resources from the successful person and give it to the idler? Again, and for rather more complex reasons that I will set out another time, but which surely many would accept are intuitively right, the answer is no. Or at the very least, our decisions on fairness and redistribution need to take account of personal responsibility, whilst compensating for disability, lack of opportunity or other factors holding people back.

So, a brief examination of fairness and equality in a just society tells us that whilst we need to design society for fairness and for supporting people in their life plans, we are not required in the interests of fairness to meet their every whim, and to compensate later those whose life choices did not enable them to deliver the same level of success as someone who chose to work harder, spend more of their time and effort on material success and so on. These are not criticisms of the less successful or those who chose to idle away their lives- that is their choice and a liberal approach respects it, as long as it does no harm to others. But a liberal society based on fairness recognises limits, and once a just and acceptable level of resources has been distributed, expects the person involved to take special responsibility for their own life and its outcomes.


Ok, so what? 

Before I go any further, it is worth saying that this is a very brief version of arguments that readers will find in John Rawls’ works, and especially Ronald Dworkin in his work on Sovereign Virtue. If what I have briefly written here is unconvincing that is my fault and not theirs. Secondly, it is worth saying that of course we make special provision for those who have disabilities, in order to provide them with the means needed to live a life of meaning and purpose.

So why the extended diversion into the theory of equality? Because it should be clear that essential to a discussion of fairness and welfare, is a clearer understanding of need, and whether that need is ‘genuine’ or trivial, excessive or in some other way not justified. If we expect humans to take responsibility for their own lives, and do not owe them an unlimited transfer of state resources under conditions of plausible freedom, then we can begin to see that argument 5 (that a welfare cap is wrong in principle and that all payments need to be based on need), does itself need some explanation and qualification.

If by need we meant the extravagant unnecessary claims of a person wedded to champagne and cigars, then clearly we do not need to pay them under a welfare system, and no one would suggest that we do. But buried in the assumptions of many that welfare caps are wrong in principle, is that the current welfare payments are indeed based on need, and that there is an objective ‘reasonable’ standard by which we can judge distribution.

That may be so, and some academics attempt to set such objective standards, based upon thinking such as minimum income needed for sizes of families to take a full part in society, or references to percentage income relative to a median income, or other bottom up calculations of consumption based on cost. I don’t mean to suggest that such calculations are wrong, or have no value.

But what I am trying to suggest that the concept of fairness in welfare is less simple than it seems,and that we need to think hard about what objective standard we are using in redistributing resources from one group to another. If we had no benefit cap, are we comfortable that it would be possible for a family on benefits to earn more than average wages, which in practice are more than most families earn because of the effect of high-earners? What about the infamous cases of families of 10 living at state largesse on incomes far in excess of ordinary people? Often progressives rightly hate the demonising of welfare scroungers, and in practice such cases are rare, but that’s beside the point- the average citizen is surely right to feel instinctively that something has gone wrong if such situations are allowed routinely.

Since we know from above that 85% of UK families have two children or less, and the current benefit cap is set to average earnings, there is prima facie a case to say that limiting transfers to other families so that their income does not rise above this, is fair.

Similarly, if we consider objective standards to be important in setting the level of welfare, and if the benefit cap allows families to earn the average wage of families across the UK, what is the problem with either a general or a two child cap? The argument runs that we do not have general responsibilities to fund unlimited desires of families or individuals, that capping transfers of income to limit those to that of the average is just the sort of objective standard we need, and that in that case the whole approach is fine.

Of course, things are not so straightforward. Let’s now reintroduce the needs of children. Children are just born into families and do not chose their life circumstances. It is not their fault, but they will surely suffer the consequences if they are born into a large family (say 5 children) whose income is capped at average family levels for those with 2 children. In this case our seemingly simple objective test of fairness- linking transfers to only allow for average earnings- appears wrong in the sense that children born to poorer families will potentially suffer. And alert readers will surely criticise me for suggest in one place that universal income including inalienable payments to children is a good idea, but that in another place arguing that a cap on welfare payments of 2 children is perfectly acceptable.

One further complication is that in one sense, it matters not a jot what the level of child tax credits are. After all, child benefit payment itself is not capped per child, and even if it was, it is the overall level of income that matters. None the less, the argument remains that larger poorer families may suffer under any plan to cap welfare. A simple way out is to promise higher wages via a higher national minimum wage, thus reducing the need for state support via income transfers. But of course, need is relative so its likely that any higher level of wages might also raise expectations of resources needed to take part in society, thus possibly eliminating some or all of the benefit of the higher national minimum wage. And anyway, whilst worthwhile in its own right, this route merely dodges the difficult question under discussion.

But yet again, do not parents owe some sort of debt to society, some sort of responsibility to the rest of us, to ensure that they limit the number of children to what they can afford? Isn’t that a basic responsibility we can all support? Well, on the surface yes, but what about unexpected changes to income or health that mean suddenly a large family can’t receive the income expected. What about all that talk about government owing a debt to its citizens to ensure that it insures for the risks that its citizens can’t manage on their own. And what about the dignity and life chances of children who did nothing to deserve the poorer life chances and circumstances they may be born into?

So, after an extended discussion, what to conclude?


Readers, I don’t know…

I confess these issues are beyond me at the moment. I started out with the contentious claim that maybe, maybe the rape clause might be justified or at least that it wasn’t as self-evident as people claimed, and that the issue was in at least some aspects an empirical not an ‘in principle’ matter. I moved on to discuss the theory behind fairness, and gave a brief (an therefore probably garbled) view of the issues around fairness, and the limits of our responsibilities to each other through state and government, given the need for people to take responsibility for their own lives and the consequences of that.

But whilst I think that ‘personal responsibility for life’ argument holds for adults, it is much more difficult to sustain for families who have needs that depend on the number of children they have. And so I am stuck.

On the one hand I’m clear that society does not owe a duty to meet the life plans of all of its citizens no matter how costly or thoughtless- instead it owes a duty to ensure that by some reasonable benchmark, people are provided with the support and resources and social resources to achieve their life plans. It seems plausible to me to argue that for people with no children, a benefit cap that ensures that they have no higher incomes when unemployed or unfit for work, than those working full time, is prima facie fair. This would of course exclude those with disability or other special needs. It seems fair to me because if they claim to have higher needs to support their maximum happiness, or welfare, or ‘success as a life-plan’, then the state can reasonably respond by saying it has taken steps to ensure that up to the average levels of income are available, and that no more are justified,with the implication that in this case the individuals needs are not justified, or at least it is not justified that other citizens (via the state and government) should support them.

On the other hand, children bear no responsibility for the life circumstances into which they are born, and should not be unfairly punished simply because thoughtless, or unlucky or unhealthy parents are deprived of welfare payments needed to ensure their children have the life they deserve and the resources they need.

So, for the moment, I can only summarise by saying I just don’t know from a theoretical perspective how to reconcile a conclusion about personal responsibility with an argument about need where children are concerned. It seems to me these sorts of discussions point to a fundamental problem with at least three things:

  • the intrusive complexity of the existing UK welfare system
  • the lack of rationale behind why we make payments in the way we do, and the subsequent emotive arguments that draw more on populism, polling and focus groups than theory, and don’t seem to be able to say what fairness and equality of resources actually means in a coherent way
  • the particular problems of trying to resolve the responsibilities of parents to society with the needs of the children born to them, within the content of a capped, rules based welfare approach.

For the moment, it seems to me that if we’re unsure, we should err on the side of the child. So, until I can work out my thoughts more clearly, I would either scrap the 2-child limit, or raise it to 3. Not very convincing I admit. Thanks for reading.

Scotland And Europe- How Realistic Are The Scottish Government’s Ambitions?

Scotland And Europe- How Realistic Are The Scottish Government’s Ambitions?

It has been a very interesting week in Scottish and UK politics, with constitutional issues and relationships-between the UK, Scotland and Europe- very much to the fore. Scotland’s First Minister has indicated in her speech to her party’s conference that there should be another referendum on Scottish independence. The First Minister, to the delight of some and the despair of others, has claimed that she has been forced into this action as Scottish Government proposals on Europe, published in December 2016, have not been taken seriously. In response, Prime Minister Teresa May has said ‘now is not the time’ with Brexit negotiations ongoing until at least 2019 and likely beyond, plus presumably a need for transition.

Now as regular readers will know, I’m no fan of the cause of independence, but rather than simply address the raw politics, I wanted to look in detail at the Scottish Government’s proposals. Ostensibly at least, the rejection of, and failure to seriously consider the Scottish Government’s proposals for a differentiated relationship for Scotland with Europe, is at the heart of the First Ministers’ desire for a fresh referendum.  But are those proposals credible or possible? Is this indeed UK government intransigence, or is it the Scottish Government making unrealistic demands in the first place? After all, if they are serious, then perhaps the First Minister has a point. But if there are not credible, then that in my opinion, shows the demands for ‘IndyRef2’ in a new light.

This blog therefore, delves into the complicated world of single markets, customs unions and trade barriers, and tries to answer the question ‘Just how realistic are the Scottish Government’s proposals on Europe’. I hope this will provide some contribution to inform the debate.


(Trying To) Explain Single Markets, Customs Unions and Economic Integration and Trade

I’m not a trade negotiator, nor am I a business person, nor have I ever had to export goods or services. So in what follows, I have done my best to tease out some key points amidst the complexity. But if you see something  that’s wrong, or too simplistic, let me know and I’ll try and correct if I agree.

I thought to kick off we should define a few terms, as understanding these is key to understanding the Scottish Government’s proposals.

There are varying degrees of economic integration, from a free trade agreement, right up to a unitary state. Free trade agreements (FTAs) are the basic starting points, giving states freedom on lots of issues denied them as members of say the European Union, but still seeking to remove trade barriers. The UK government currently wishes to negotiate lots of new FTAs when it leaves the EU, which currently the common approaches to such things as a member of the EU prevents.

Next on the ascending ladder of integration are Customs Unions– members of a Customs Union take a common approach to external tariffs with other countries, whilst allowing the free movement of goods within members of the Union. Countries can be members of a Customs Union but not a common market, or vice-versa. If you’re not in a customs unions, then customs checks on your imports, tariffs and compliance with complicated ‘rules of origin‘ likely become a time consuming and potentially expensive issue. If you have complex multi-country supply chains or rely on just-in-time systems, you’ll want to avoid rules of origin and customs checks if you can.

Next, we have a Common Market, the sort of arrangement that the EEC was developing in the 1990s prior to morphing into the EU. Common markets seek to remove most but not all barriers to trade including tariffs, harmonising of product and production standards and freeing up movement of goods, services, capital and people.

Next we have a single market, a combination of a common market with a customs union, and looking to remove both tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, along with free movement of people across the market. The EU is a single market and the largest in the world with 500 million people, as is the EEA which includes EFTA members. Now EFTA countries (Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) are members of the EEA along with the EU members- and in return for complying with the rules and paying a fee, are full members of the single market ( though their ability to shape the rules is severely limited).

The single market, in order to work requires that members fully adopt a set of what is known as the ‘four freedoms’- free movement of goods, services, people and capital.

Finally, some members of the EU (but not all) are members of a further integrated economic and monetary union, whereby they have adopted a single currency.

If you’re still with me, we need to also remember about movement of people, facilitated by borders unions, of which the Schengen Area is the main one in Europe. Neither the UK nor Ireland are members of Schengen, mostly due to the pre-existing agreement following Irish independence, known as the Common Travel Area.

As we can see, it is complicated, with some EU members being full members of the single market and currency union, others outside the currency union, with the single market also having non-EU members in the single market via the European Economic Area and with some non-EU members having harmonised border arrangements, but not others.

Key points are that there is a ‘ladder’ of integration, starting with free trade, moving through customs unions and integration of standards, towards a full single market and currency union, and ultimately of course, a single unified state. As I understand it, the direction of travel of both the EU and of trade negotiation generally, is to move beyond merely eliminating tariffs on goods, towards removal of non-tariff barriers to trade in goods and services, such as the harmonisation of technical and product standards, intellectual property, labelling, licensing and removing services market barriers to enable financial and digital markets.

Actually, the former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, as part of his ‘Brexit Challenge’ series, lays this out rather well.


Brexit Issues and Economics 

Now I should note in passing that I voted to remain, that I think exiting the EU is a very bad idea, that the challenges are immense, and that we seem to be creating the potential for economic self-harm without being likely to realise the promised benefits. But that is a whole other story so I won’t dwell on it. If you are interested then try this from the IFS, this from Wren-Lewis and to explain the background try these excellent papers from Nick Clegg, for example this on food and agriculture, or this on the complexities of the Brexit negotiation. 

For the avoidance of doubt, I agree with those who think Brexit is a bad idea, but the purpose of this blog isn’t to discuss Brexit per se, but rather whether the Scottish Government has made viable alternative proposals.

So, what is the Scottish Government proposing?


The Scottish Government Proposals 

The Scottish Government’s proposals on Europe are contained in a 62 page paper published in December 2016. The thrust of the First Minister’s case for a referendum is that the proposals in the paper haven’t been taken seriously. So what does the paper propose?

The first two chapters of the paper explain how we have arrived at this point, and the importance of the single market to Scotland’s interests. It is worth noting that the paper (para 34) suggests that a range of fundamental rights and interests of working people, social and environmental interests and wider common challenges such as climate change,may be under threat as the loss of the overarching framework increases the chances of a current or future UK government removing these protections and agreements.

Chapter 3 moves onto ‘protecting Scotland’s interests’ either by keeping the UK in the single market, or by examine ‘differentiated solutions for Scotland’. Chapter 4 then discusses a range of devolution and constitutional consequences of Brexit for Scotland and the UK, some of that discussion assuming that chapter 3 proposals are going ahead, before Chapter 5 summarises.

The paper initially hopes that the UK will seek to remain part of the single market and customs union as the best option for both the UK and for Scotland (and I agree with that). However since the paper was written in December 2016, the Prime Minister in her speech on Brexit, made clear that the option of staying as a member of the single market and customs union was not on the table, although somewhat mysteriously ‘access’ and ‘association’ were. Regardless of what we think of the UK government’s negotiation objectives, this does mean that the Scottish Government’s ‘differentiated proposals’ come into play.

Just before we get to the specifics though, let me say that in general terms the paper undermines its own credibility by not really addressing a fundamental point- the relative size and importance of the UK single market for Scottish trade, relative to the European market. Not only is Scottish trade with the UK market 4 times bigger, but trade with England has been growing far faster for Scotland than trade with the EU over the last 10 years- not the message that either the First Minister, nor the paper itself, seems willing to make clear. I’m sure the authors will point to mentions at various places of the UK single market, but it hardly makes it clear that one is 4 times bigger than the other nor the recent dynamics.

In my opinion this is yet again an example of the problem with the blindness of the independence argument- point out the problems with ‘thing A’ (in this case Brexit) whilst ignoring the problems with thing B (independence). This chart makes the point:

But back to the proposals.


What Is the Differentiated Proposal for Scotland?


If we accept that the UK is leaving the single market and Customs Union, then the Scottish Government essentially calls for Scotland to be allowed to stay in the single market (but not the Customs Union). This is called for based on the chapter two list of the benefits of membership, and the problems for Scotland if it leaves. I find these claims slightly overdone but convincing.

The key sections start at para 106. The Scottish Government says it is ‘essential’ that Scotland can ‘remain within the EEA and the European Single Market even if the rest of the UK leaves’. The paper claims that there are already differentiated arrangements within the EU and single market framework, nothing that parts of Denmark (Greenland,Faroes) have different relationships, as do the Svalbard Islands in Norway. Similarly the Channel Islands are mentioned, as is Liechtenstein. The paper also makes a version of the argument ‘well everything is already going to change because of Brexit so…’

The core of the proposal (para 117) is membership of the European Single Market, and collaboration with EU partners on key aspects of policy and participation in EU programmes just as Horizon 2020, energy and justice. Para 126 is explicit in suggesting that the proposal will give a comparative advantage to Scottish companies. Para 130 appears to suggest that as a price of single market membership, the ‘four freedoms’ would have to be upheld, implying that EU rules would be paramount in Scotland compared to UK rules (if they weren’t, the four freedoms would be breached and misalignment with the single market rules created over time)

The paper notes the challenges that this option presents- the status of Scotland in international law,legislative and regulatory compliance, free movement of people within the UK and continued free trade within the UK (as part of the UK single market).

The paper notes that only states can become members of EFTA and so proposes that either Scotland becomes an ‘associate’ member or that the UK retains membership of EFTA but then applies a ‘territorial exemption’ to all of its territory except Scotland. The paper appears to suggest this is possible because the Svalbard Islands have some elements of EFTA rules disapplied.

The paper notes that to be a member of EFTA, Scotland would need to attend international fora to ensure compliance and also submit to the jurisdiction of the EFTA Court, and to both ensure UK regulation and policy on competition, procurement and state aid rules complied with EFTA (and therefore single market rules) in Scotland, or that new powers are granted to Scotland (see below).

On free movement of goods and services, the paper appears to suggest that two legal and trade regimes will be operating without undue problems. Firstly, Scottish goods exported to the single market will comply with single market rules, but secondly Scottish goods exported to the rest of the UK will comply with UK rules. Apparently, any changes in trade relations with England will be frictionless.

On free movement, the key problem of course is that much of the Brexit debate was about reducing free movement of people, but the paper appears to suggest that again, two systems can be operated. Scotland will have an open relationship with 500 million people in the single market and accept free movement of people. However at the same time, no hard border for people will exist with England. The explanation for this relies on the precedent set by the Common Travel area I mentioned above, where Irish citizens can travel freely across the UK.

Finally, in order to make all this happen, the paper suggests a long-list of new powers are required for the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. Actually new powers are of 3 types:-

– matters which are no longer subject to EU law and that currently are devolved to Scotland (e.g. fishing, agriculture, marine environment, civil law, justice)

– other areas of EU competence that need to be devolved to Scotland to protect over-arching key rights such as health and safety or employment law and workers rights, equalities law, consumer protection

– new powers needed to make the differentiated arrangement work

This latter list is surprisingly long and includes import and export control; immigration; competition policy,product standards and intellectual property; company law and insolvency; social security; professional regulation; energy regulation; financial services; telecommunications; postal services and the full devolution of transport. In addition, Scotland needs the power to take part in trade negotiations, international fora including EFTA mechanisms, and cooperation.


Is All This Remotely Credible or Feasible?


What are we to make of all this?

Firstly, I think we can safely say that the politics look challenging. The idea that a UK government will proceed to complex negotiations with 27 member states on the terms of Brexit, plus a range of negotiations with countries around the world, whilst also granting one part of its territory an set of exemptions, looks implausible. Not to mention that immigration and control of free movement was a key aspect of the Brexit discussion, but the Scottish Government suggests that will remain for Scotland. Add in the explicit suggestion that differentiation gives a competitive advantage to Scots companies, plus the suggestion that under the deal Scotland takex ovrr its ‘share’ of the previous EU funding contribution and it starts to look almost impossible.

Beyond the politics though, I think there are more serious flaws. All of the territorial exemptions mentioned above are very small- Svalbard, Liechtenstein, Faeroe Islands- and are very small in trade terms whereas Scotland is a top 50 world economy on its own. Secondly, I find the idea of a territorial exemption applied to 90+% of the UK population- remember the idea is that UK stays but exempts itself from EFTA except Scotland- to be implausible in the extreme. Thirdly, the idea of an ‘association’ from a non-state member seems a non-starter, as Iceland said recently. 

So on political and legal grounds, things look shaky.

But let’s keep going. The paper appears to suggest that in order to stay in the single market, UK rules would have to defer to single market rules and that great swathes of what it is to be a UK unified state would not apply. Remember this affects things as diverse as competition law, energy, production standards and a host more. I find that this strains credibility. I also find that the idea that a single unified state can apply two sets of trade rules across its geography, but also maintain an internal free open border for people, goods and services, to be implausible . The paper says that if the UK succeeds in its Brexit goals, then there should be minimal differentiation between the existing regimes, and the new UK relationships. But of course if that was true, then that removes much of the argument for the differentiated solution. So either, things will be the same (in which case why bother with the complex Scottish solution) or things will be very different indeed, in which case operating two very different systems seems a non-starter.

One point that does appear to have force is the argument that if the UK can agree a special deal with Ireland (a foreign state) on the free movement of people across the UK, then ‘there can be no reason whatsoever that it could not continue to operate between Scotland and the rest of the UK, even if Scotland is in the single market’. But I’m afraid this wording reminds me of the now-dead former currency union plan- the gentleman protests too much. In reality I think there are reasons to think that the Irish and Scottish situation would be different:

– firstly the Common Trade Agreement has been in place since the 1920s and has not caused the concern that EU immigration has (or at least not recently)

– second both the EU and UK recognise the pre-existing agreement and seek means to honour it- whilst neither has given any indication they wish to see more such arrangements. In general the direction of travel is to remove special cases not add to them

-thirdly, the risk of conflict in Ireland is fresh in everyone’s minds, so the animus to get an agreement is much stronger

– fourthly, Ireland is a island separated physically, so the ongoing suggestion is too find a free movement solution that involves more checks at airports and ports, rather than the physical contiguous border- and that doesn’t apply to the English-Scottish border

-finally – we don’t actually know if the Brexit negotiations will succeed in generating a solution that avoids a hard border.

Let’s keep going. At first sight, it appears perfectly reasonable to suggest that any powers ‘coming back’ from the EU to the UK that covered devolved matters, should go straight to Scotland. But not to fast- the issue is that these powers are tied up with complex discussions that need to take place on trade and tariffs and market access- not just the policies themselves. So, as Nick Clegg points out, food and farming policy will need to be thought through not just in terms of CAP-replacement, but also on complicated trade and import issues. So, even the initial list of new powers suggested by the Scottish Government needs pause for thought- its not a land-grab for the UK government to want to think it through, it merely reflects the need to for example, retain bargaining power in trade discussions, and ensure maintenance of the UK single market.

But as we move onto the wish list of new powers in the Scottish Government’s paper, things in my view start to become beyond the point that serious proposals are being made. Recall that even before we get to this point, special legal status for Scotland is needed, UK rules and policies will need to be subverted to single market rules for Scotland, free movement of people with no hard border will need to be agreed, and two complex and different bodies of trade rules will need to be accepted. But that’s not all!

Now we find that the UK will have a sub-section part of it that controls not only trade, but also immigration, consumer law, employment law, imports and export rules, intellectual property, social security, professional regulation, energy, telecommunications policy, financial services and a host more.

I won’t go through why that is beyond implausible. At that level of devolution it should be clear that there are three consequences:

– the UK single market and associated rule book will barely apply in Scotland

– distortions between England and Scotland will appear all over the place with massive potential for conflict and political disagreement

-a state with that level of devolution can barely be called a state, and is one step away from breaking up

So I found it hard to take seriously such a wish list, which I felt could only really be put forward in the expectation of being rejected.


Time To Summarise 


If you made it this far, ‘well done’. The sheer length of this and the range of issues to be considered does I think show how complex Brexit is going to be. I think we can draw a few conclusions:

– Brexit is going to be an undertaking of unprecedented difficulty and complexity

– The consequences of Brexit for the UK and Scottish economies look severe and ongoing and the Scottish Government is surely right to point them out

– At the same time, the proposals for a differentiated solution for Scotland  by remaining part of the single market don’t look politically feasible, but more importantly lack international precedent at the scale proposed

– the proposals surely fail the credibility test – operating differing trade, immigration, free movement of peoples and other regimes within a single state at the scope and scale proposed just doesn’t add up

– either the timing of new powers demanded is wrong (think agriculture or food), or the scope of powers demanded is just not credible within a unified state.

My conclusion is clear- the Scottish Government proposals do not represent a credible package that any government, not just a UK government, could agree. They lack serious international precedent, they destroy the basis of the unified UK state, and they appear to fall foul of international law.

My final comment is this- I do agree with independence supporters on one point at least. Scotland does face a choice, a choice brought on by Brexit. The choice is to stay with the UK and accept a new trading relationship with Europe and the rest of the world, or leave and forge a new state itself. Pretending you have have both is neither sensible not credible.

















Economic Fantasy,Fiscal Chicanery-Predictions About the SNP’s Growth Commission

Economic Fantasy,Fiscal Chicanery-Predictions About the SNP’s Growth Commission

This week I want to post some more overtly political thoughts, in the run up to the SNP’s annual conference and the impending launch of the SNP’s Growth Commission. Part prediction, part criticism, readers will soon see whether my remarks are on the money or way off. As it will be pretty obvious, I voted and will vote to remain in the UK, but I do try to treat the figures honestly, am happy to also highlight the UK’s deficiencies, and will also be happy to credit where independence brings advantages. For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t claim that it is not perfectly respectable to take a view for identity or other political reasons that independence is desirable (it just doesn’t convince someone like me that prefers the UK and also is concerned about equality and decent public services)

The Background- A Nonsense Economic Case in 2014 

Although always likely to vote no, a private dinner with the then SNP leader Alex Salmond persuaded me at the end of 2013 to have an open mind and to study the case for independence as closely as I could. Eight books, the Yes White Paper and 5,000 pages of reading later, I concluded that the economic case and the claimed fiscal consequences of the Yes campaign were a nonsense, and in fact worse, a giant mendacious duplicity.

That’s because no responsible movement which seeks a better life for all Scots would have made the sorts of self-evidently ridiculous claims that the SNP/Yes campaign did between 2012-14. As I hope previous blogs have shown, I take the responsibilities of the state to its citizens very seriously- and I expect anyone proposing change to start out by explaining to me how the poorest will be protected and decent public services maintained.

It was pretty obvious that Scotland spent more than it earned, that a currency union with the UK would not happen, that oil was central to the case put forward and not a bonus, that start-up costs would be far higher than proposed, that far from being the 6th wealthiest country on earth, that an independent Scotland would face serious challenges, of the sort that blow out of the water the claims that we would have seamlessly transformed into a social democratic panacea, keeping the best parts of the UK and ditching the rest. This analysis ignores other downsides of independence (and of course I’m also putting upsides to one side for the moment).

Others who are far better with economics and numbers than I have shredded these claims- the clearest expositions I’ve seen come from Kevin Hague at Chokkablog, and I recommend reading here  and here for more (which from now on for this post I will take as read that a significant fiscal and economic challenge exists, rather than going through the numbers at length). However this excellent graph from Kevin Hague summarises the picture:

Now many (some?) independence supporters still believe all those claims to be true. But, belatedly, the SNP and its closest and former  advisers have signalled that the former case is dead, and that a new case is needed. Hence the ‘Growth Commission’, which is expected to report soon.

The Commission will need to explain how such a yawning gap can be overcome- which means it will need to talk about how to increase growth in an independent  Scotland, it likely wants to say in some way where and how decisions on tax and spend may be different, how social protections can be maintained, as well as other huge issues like what choice of currency should be made, how future decisions will affect trade and borders and so on. 


What The Growth Commission Can’t Do…

So, roughly speaking any independent Scotland will start with a structural deficit of 9-10%, the largest in the western world. The latest GERS figures set out this position very clearly:

Broadly speaking, GDP per head is slightly higher in Scotland (note that’s not the same as actual resources for citizens, or GNP), tax receipts per head are slightly lower, and spending is ALOT higher per head.

Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that current economic growth is fundamentally unsustainable, and work within the existing economic mindset. Let’s also note that Scots tax is take is around 35% of the Scottish economy (GDP), and that Scots spending is around 44% of the Scottish economy, (equivalent figures for the UK as a whole are around 33% tax take and 43% spending to GDP) .**** Correction-@FraserWhyte81 has rightly pointed out the UK numbers should be 36/40%-oops.See OBR: Correction ends******


I am also going to assume that Scotland takes its fair share of UK debt.

So what can’t the Commission do? At least, what can’t it do if it wants to avoid being seen as just another ridiculous paper-thin mouthpiece for ‘existential’ independence.

Well, for a start it can’t indulge in joke facts or conspiracy theories. What I mean is silly claims like the GERS figures are not complete, or that rightful Scottish tax income is somehow not included in the numbers, or that Scotland pays for English only spending,or that start-up costs of a new nation will somehow provide huge savings, or that we won’t have to take on our fair share of debt, or any number of other badly informed memes that are repeated endlessly on twitter or by disreputable crowd-sourced types. No, Scottish exports are not largely disguised as English exports. No, we are not missing ‘whisky export duty’. No, there are not secret oilfields being held back to do Scotland down.

For credibility it should also avoid the claim that GERS tells us nothing about the starting point for an independent Scotland. The Chokkablog deals with this point very well. It should also avoid trying to say that Scotland is a basket case thanks to decades of mismanagement by Westminster, or harping on about how no one thought in the 1970s to put aside oil revenues to create an oil fund a la Norway.

If it was being honest, the Commission would admit that it is very likely that Scotland would face higher costs of borrowing for its debt, simply because it is a new nation, with a large deficit and without the track record of debt management and payments  that the UK has. It would probably also admit that collection costs for taxes would be higher, at least initially, due to start-up costs and loss of economies of scale.

It should avoid implying that cuts to spending which are symbolic for some nationalists, but very small potatoes really, are the key to solving any spending gap- I am of course thinking of Trident, or the costs of repairing Westminster, or no longer paying the Scots share of the monarchy or House of Lords. My rough calculations suggest these save at best £300 million a year, which as we’ll see, is peanuts compared to the challenge faced.

Finally, although I am no currency expert, it seems to me that the commission should avoid wild claims about how the whole of the UK is run just to appease and maximise the benefits to London, or the city of London, or how the pound is kept artificially high and so on. Or how we can simply dictate to our larger neighbour what our currency options are.


What the Growth Commission Will Probably Do?


Let’s move on to what the Commission is likely to propose. In order to inform that I’ve reproduced from the latest GERS publication (1)  the breakdown of Scottish government revenues, and the breakdown of Scottish expenditures, including both Scottish direct expenditure and calculated costs of UK services provided to Scotland, such as defence.


I also thought it might be useful to provide a breakdown of the contribution of tax payers to revenues in the UK by income deciles, for the last year I could easily find (2012-13)(2) :

So, remember that the Commission is looking for ways to grow the economy, improve government revenues, and make different tax and spending choices. Independent Scotland would need to reduce its deficit from 10% to around 3% over time, or make up the gap from the loss of the UK fiscal transfer. Spending is around £68bn per annum, revenues are around £53 billion per annum, a gap of £15,000m. Now governments can live over the long-term with annual deficits no more than around 3% using conventional economics, which is our framework, so in reality the Commission needs to find around £10,ooo million a year from a combination of:

Higher Growth+Lower Spending+Higher Taxes+More Borrowing

What might it propose?

Different Tax and Spending 

The first very sensible and entirely appropriate thing it might say is that the point of an independent Scotland is to make different tax and spending choices. That is surely true, and the suggestion from many in the independence movement is that Scotland needs to follow a different economic and political path to England. The suggestion is often that cuts to public spending, although the lowest in the UK, are too high and that more expenditure on social protection, welfare, education and a host of other desirable things is needed.

But hold on, an independent Scotland will face the loss of the UK fiscal transfer of approximately £9-10,000 million a year or £1800-2000 per every person in Scotland. So, it is not credible to say that from day 1, Scots will start to spend more freely on a bunch of desirable things, without saying where the cash comes from, and even more importantly, where the substance comes from to plug the loss of the UK fiscal transfer. Looked at another way, a deficit of 10% per annum is miles from being sustainable, indeed a similar number in 2010 caused the UK a crisis from which is is still trying to recover. Either looked at as a need to get that deficit down, or as a need to plug the loss of the UK fiscal transfer the Commission will surely need to ‘fess up and admit that around £10,000 million a year of new government income, higher taxes or lower spending, or higher borrowing is needed.

So let’s finally get started on the detail. It seems clear that one thing on the minds of independence supporters is that there is a lot of unnecessary UK-led spending that Scotland currently pays for, but which add little or no value and are mere hang-ups of empire.

I predict that the Commission will gently suggest that defence spending can be cut- but will want to be vague about the level of it since that is a difficult political message to sell. Total defence spending is around £3,000 million a year including Trident. Your guess is as good as mine but let’s be generous to the Commissioners and suggest they may go for a maximum 50% cut, saving £1.5 billion a year. GERS tells us that roughly £2 billion more comes from various UK services such as foreign aid, diplomacy, embassies and the like. Let’s be generous and assume they can be cut in half and that the Commission may find them a tempting target as a UK reserved, slightly remote set of ‘things’. Of course the reality is, slashing things such as foreign aid, embassies and the like is hardly the actions of a social democracy but we’re being kind. So, maximum another £1 billion a year saved.

Well, this is getting hard isn’t it? We’ve cut defence and national services by 50% but we’ve only managed to shave £3bn off spending.

So, perhaps the Commission will move onto tax? Many on the left of the independence movement think taxes are too low in the UK and that we should move to the Nordics model of much higher taxes and much higher public expenditures as a share of GDP. Politicians know though, that raising taxes is always difficult, especially when we face the worst decade on record for personal incomes since the Napoleonic wars. Doubly difficult if you are trying to persuaded undecideds to vote for independence.

Another difficulty comes from my graph above on the relative contribution of income tax payers to government revenues. In a nutshell the top 10% pay hugely more as a proportion towards income tax revenues, and that trend is accelerating with higher income growth at the top of the scale and widening of the personal allowance at the bottom. Very difficult if you want to raise the taxes for the rich, whilst maintaining an open border to England.

So, whilst the obvious solution is to raise taxes, my bet is that the Commissioners will skirt the issue. The Commission will waffle on bit about differing economic models and the attractions of a Nordic style set-up of high taxes, high services. They will also point to Laffer-Curve economics, purporting to show that low taxes generate higher revenues. They will probably hint at higher taxes but not have the gumption to call for them. They will almost certainly claim that Westminster has ‘mismanaged’ Scotland’s finances, and that savings can be found from efficiency, new arrangements and the chance to start afresh with new agencies and new systems. They may well make some vague noises about tax evasion and how the post-Brexit UK wants to be a low tax, off-shore tax haven, and how independent Scotland will be having none of that.

I suspect given the currency of the topic, that the Commission will also make some vague positive noises about new forms of taxation and new sources of revenue- probably including looking at property and land taxes again, a Land Value Tax, possibly taxing renewables differently and possibly green taxes in the form of Ecological Tax Reform.

So, I’m not expecting too many tax specifics from the Commission- rather alot of generality about new models and new forms of revenue.

One thing that will be fascinating is how the tug-of-war between high tax, high spend nationalists and those seeking a low tax, high growth model, will resolve themselves.

Higher Borrowing

The Commission will probably gloss over higher borrowing for a number of reasons. Firstly its a common independence meme to have a go at the high debt of the UK, so calling for more debt for independent Scotland looks tough. Secondly, its pretty clear that challenging demographics and higher service costs means that Scotland already faces a debt challenge.

Thirdly, being realistic, independent Scotland will likely face higher costs of borrowing and with a 10% deficit, rapidly increasing debt burdens- doubling as a percentage of GDP every 10 years if left unchecked, and reaching a gargantuan 300% within 20-odd years. So, my bet is that the Commission will say that a measure of extra borrowing will be required ‘in the early years’ as part of a ‘prudent’ approach to an ‘integrated economic growth strategy’ as well as a new fiscal rule to only borrow to invest for the long-term in due course.

I firmly predict that the Commission will elide borrowing for the long-term into just borrowing, whilst having a free pop at the UK government for being irresponsible and clueless.

Higher Growth, The Multiplier!

Now here is surely where the Commission will focus. If cutting spending to reach the magic £10,000 million a year to just keep us where we are relative to the UK is hard, if proposing to raise taxes to plug the gap is also hard. If borrowing sends the wrong signal and is anyway expensive and unsustainable, then what do you have left?

My prediction is that you have 3 things. Firstly, you have a general lecture of the sort that civil servants like to write, or that appear in economics textbooks, setting out the range of new powers and choices that an independent Scotland would have. These are the famous ‘levers’, and include control of total spending, total taxes, total borrowing, currency, competition policy, industrial policy, education and training, infrastructure, and so on. Quite a lot will be said on that, trying to imply that no one else in the world, including and especially the UK government, have ever thought of this, and that mere possession of the magical powers means you are well on the way to solving the problem.

Of course the reality is that all government’s are trying to raise growth all the time, using these same powers but let’s move on.

Secondly, we can expect a variety of cherry-picked examples, somewhat inconsistent in their intellectual underpinnings, showing a ‘bonus’ from independence and plucked from across time and space, scales and geographies, sectors and tax takes. Possibly at this point the Commission choses to include a plea for better statistics on the Scottish economy, especially macro-economic statistics, and with exports and import statistics separated out. There will likely be an invoking of the ‘known unknowns, or unknown unknowns’ and darkly implying that although this is a serious Commission, its work has been seriously hampered by a lack of statistics that must be improved, with language implying that probably Scotland is being shafted in some way.

This list of examples will also include a rather irrelevant list of current Scottish economic strengths, by sector and by export size, with some carefully picked examples of where Scotland does better than the UK, thus implying that we’re just better overall. The list will include oil and gas, whisky and food, universities, renewables , financial services and medicine/life-sciences, and probably farming and creative industries and gaming as well.

Thirdly, in general terms the Commission will speculate on the level of increased growth needed and how that might be done. This should of course be the major part of the report, but I am willing to bet that it says interesting but underdeveloped things that you would enjoy reading about in theory, but wouldn’t bet the future of the country on. As Kevin Hague says,  at the level of bonus from independence set out in the 2014 white paper (0.1%) you’d need more than 100 years to get back to where we are now with that level of ‘bonus’.

So, expect the Commission to talk about new growth models, and to ‘raise the ambition’ to outperform the UK annually to make up the slack within a period of say 10-15 years. Now currently ‘average’ UK has been in the 2-2.5% range, though Brexit may make it lower of course. And Scots growth, particularly recently, has been lower than that. We need to bridge the gap between revenues and spending by our £10,000m minus the spending cuts above of £3,000m or roughly £7,000 million per annum. Scots GDP is around £150billion a year and assuming we don’t raise the tax take proportion , then around 35% is captured in new taxes. So, essentially we can calculate the additional growth rate needed either by taking Chokka blog’s 16% additional growth needed relative to UK, or by dividing £7Bn/0.35= £20,000m of new ‘GDP’ needed or growing the economy by around 13% in real terms. Remembering my number is lower because I assume some spending cuts, and also remembering this is per head overall and so not counting growth just due to inflation or immigration.

Now, normally a government would be delighted if it raised trend annual growth by 0.5%, which is 5 times larger than the bonus assumed in the white paper. Additional growth of 0.5% a year means you’d need roughly 25-30 years to catch up to current levels. Meantime you’d have incurred around £200 billion of new debt and debt to GDP will have reached 200%. If you want a faster transition, say 10 years or less then my simple arithmetic suggestions if you raise Scottish growth from less than 2% per annum to 4% then you need only 3-5 years, during which time your debt is only raised by 25% of GDP. But doubling economic growth sounds easier than it is (ALOT easier).

For these reasons, I think the Commission will either just stick with ‘growth generality’ of which I’ll say more in a second, or plump for a additional growth bonus without attempting to justify. I’ll go with a guess that the Commission will call for ways to ‘explore’ raising Scots growth to 2.5% in the short term and 3% over the medium term, using cherry picked examples as above.

Finally, the Commission will almost certainly list a range of opportunities and priorities and no doubt these will include:

-renewables as a low cost sustainable future energy source, a possible source of tax revenue and a competitive advantage and a source of exports and jobs

– some generalities on the benefits of infrastructure including some blame to Westminster for under-investing and a call to arms to invest in Scotland’s schools, roads, ports, airports, water and sewerage systems

– some flirting with the idea of more state control of key industries including perhaps nationalising the railways or setting up national or regional investment banks. Expect this section to be needed to calm left-leaning supporters worried about the focus on economics and low tax, as well as too good an opportunity to have a pop at (albeit mostly stupid) Tory privatisation and private involvement in public services, as well as appealing to the small but vociferous radical independence people with empowered local economic development

– one of the SpAds will have read something about cities and there will be a need to compete with Westminster’s city deals process, so expect some generality on the opportunities arising from cities, as well as a few mildly interesting points on digital, low carbon transport, informatics and big data and new tax mechanisms like TIF

– Expect some vague calls to explore decentralising to unleash a ‘double dividend’ of growth at Scottish and local level, but carefully vague so as not to make any commitments

– Expect something about how great the opportunity to decommission all those oil and gas platforms will be, with a big number and little to say about economic value and the moral responsibilities of the big oil majors, but lots about how Scotland can lead the way on this

– Do expect an invocation of the history of Scots innovation at some point- especially on manufacturing, engineering and the like. This gives an opportunity to quote how Scots manufacturing has declined shamefully at the hands of the UK government, as well as claiming a new opportunity for the future

– Expect some generality about new models needed for housing , and calls to innovate to fund these houses, including entirely obvious calls to deploy institutional investors and tempt mobile capital in search of returns etc. etc.

– Expect a list of other opportunities that will pour forth once we are independent- the list designed to impress you with the sheer range of things that can be done, with no real analysis of how or whether they really boost growth, fit into an overall strategy or can be achieved without heavy new spend. This list to include vocational training, energy and heat, green technologies and the circular economy, tourism etc.

– Of course expect a heavy emphasis on Brexit and how bad that will be and how it will create a whole series of opportunities for companies itching to move to Scotland to access the single market- from financial services to car manufacturers, from service companies to exporters.

– There will of course be something (rightly) on how independence means Scotland can shape a new approach to immigration policy more tailored to its needs. In reality though, immigration would need to be huge to really make a difference to the growth gap- its no use increasing the sheer size of the economy, its the size of the economy per head that matters. The SNP will be well aware that despite all the body politic noises about civic nationalism and immigrants being welcome in Scotland, that’s arguably because immigration is so low. There will be a nervousness to place too much emphasis on large scale immigration, so the Commission will stick to saying its a good thing, that they want to be part of the EU and free movement, and to look for ways to tempt foreign talent in short supply and compete with negative, neoliberal post-Brexit UK

– There will have to be something about a new industrial strategy, but I’m not sure exactly and I do look forward to seeing if there is anything new in that. I suspect it will just be a rehash of known points about training and education, infrastructure, public research, universities, infrastructure, and start up and commercialisation support plus a dash of low carbon transition. The problem is, that anyone can write that- it requires time, energy, money and new standards and laws to achieve it and that is hard in a newly independent small nation. But I’ll wait and see

– Finally, I’d expect the whole growth strategy to be underpinned by an inclusive growth agenda, which would be very welcome, although possibly with more emphasis on new costs to business, rather than new ideas on raising growth. So, very welcome things like equality duties, workers rights, possibly exploring basic income, workers on boards, gender quality on boards, women in STEM subjects, providing more public services for free, improving the life of the precariat and so on.

In passing, I’m sure the Commission will have something to say on the thorny issues of currency and open borders, how to manage capital flight and how to raise taxes whilst having an open border with England, when England might be outside the UK. But I’ve gone on long enough, and need to finish.


Why the Growth Commission and Economic and Fiscal Case Remains Fantasy and Chicanery

Even going on this long, and in a rather jaundiced way, I’ve barely touched the surface. I have considered it, and I cannot see an easy or even credible way for an independent Scotland to maintain its current standards of living, public spending and tax rates, without high levels of disruption.

I’ve said why I think the Commission will struggle as well. To recap:-

-it might suggest some spending cuts that aren’t contentious but the ‘easy’ ones aren’t easy or credible and are anyway nowhere near enough

– raising taxes looks difficult, if they are really honest they will call for it,but I think they will only hint and mostly dodge

– the Commission will be tempted to list things like new economic powers or new approaches, in the hope that these sound impressive enough to the average voter

– the Commission will definitely want to say why inclusive growth+ Brexit plus all these choices= happy days for Scotland,though I doubt its little more than a wishful thinking guess or bet, that may or may not come off

– the Commission will surely want to say that growth needs to be higher but at best will pluck a bonus for growth figure from the air, and avoid the central problem that implausible levels of additional growth are needed and avoid proper analysis- I hope I’m wrong

So I fear dear reader, the Commission’s report will be nicely written with a few nice new ideas and things to put in the public domain for debate, but continuing to suggest things can be straightforwardly managed, and it is all achievable with just a soupcon of trouble.

Even if all of the Commission’s wish list comes to fruition, just how we get there avoiding capital flight, recession, loss of living standards, avoiding tax rises and austerity cuts on steroids, and avoiding piling up massive public debt, will be beyond them. Why? Because in my view this is simply one problem that can’t be solved without pain, and pain that I think is entirely unnecessary. Thanks for reading- you won’t have long to wait to see if I am right.



(1) Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland 2015-16 Scottish Government August 2106

(2) House of Commons Library Briefing Paper Number 06569 June 2015 Income Tax:Increases in the Personal Allowance 2010-2015












Modern Life is Rubbish- Ten Ways That Poorer People Are Treated Unfairly In the UK

Modern Life is Rubbish- Ten Ways That Poorer People Are Treated Unfairly In the UK 

‘Em… Hang on a minute.’


I am conscious that, to date, many of my posts have been rather long, and rather abstract. So this time I wanted to say something more tangible- about how it seems to me that modern life in the UK is tilted towards unfairness if you are poor. Let me list 10 obvious ways, and then draw some conclusions.

Unfairness Number One- Energy Costs and Energy Transition

If you are poorer, you are more likely to have to use a pre-payment meter, which costs you more. You are also much more likely to be fuel poor, unable to heat your home properly, possibly suffering bad insulation, bad heating and more expense. And to add insult to injury, any taxes you pay or any surcharge on your bills to allow the much needed transition away from fossil fuels to low carbon and renewables, is unlikely to benefit you as lower income families don’t have the resources to hand to take advantage of subsidies home renewables.


Unfairness Number Two- Banking,Savings and Money 

The tendency is that poorer people will pay more for credit and loans, sometimes a lot more, and even if it is for basic services. This report from Save the Children  and this report explain in more detail- this table is from the Save the Children report:

Either because you don’t have the internet and/or can’t pay by direct debit, or your credit history is affected by poverty, or because you can’t afford large one off-purchases, if you are poor the evidence suggests you pay a lot more for big-ticket items. Oh, and your pay-as-you-go mobile service will be more expensive too. You may live in a less desirable area so you risk you’ll pay a lot more for insurance and car insurance too. Though action has been taken to cap the worst excesses of pay day lending, you’ll still end up with a much more poorer deal on credit and loans.


Unfairness Number Three- Access to Wealth and Investments 

Because you are poor, chances are you will have no or little savings and no or little wealth. That means that any returns you do make will be modest, whether that is on your savings account, modest private pension or dividends. You’ll likely not have a house of your own so the natural growth in housing value won’t accrue to you. Unlike rich people, you can’t afford investment advice to take advantage of complex investment opportunities. Even if you could, your small pot means you can’t compete with the much higher returns that people with capital secure.


Unfairness Number Four -Wealth and Your Start (and end!) in Life 

The last Labour government in the UK introduced Child Trust Funds, a form of asset based policies. 

It seems to me this was a great idea- it recognised that one glaring unfairness in life is that richer people often have more choices and do better because they have independent wealth, and that perhaps the state could start to rectify this with a savings based approach. Sadly, the coalition government scrapped the policy in 2010.

So, no only do some people start out with far more advantages in life, they can use their wealth and capital to secure even more advantage. Often the tax system rewards them- from higher rate tax relief on private pensions, to capital gains tax treatment, to (now much more generous) inheritance tax treatment. So, just so readers understand- not only do poorer people have no savings or wealth, but the tax system and lack of asset based policies mean any tax they do pay partly goes to subsidise tax reliefs for people who have way more wealth and opportunity. And the chances of a poorer person ever ‘catching up’ are very modest indeed.


Unfairness Number Five- Food Availability, Cost and Quality

Apparently food poverty affects 4 million people in the UK.

‘Food poverty is worse diet, worse access, worse health, higher percentage of income on food and less choice from a restricted range of foods.  Above all food poverty is about less or almost no consumption of fruit & vegetables’
Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University.

In a nutshell, if you’re poor your food costs you proportionately more, you have less choice, lower quality and worse health outcomes as a result.

Speaking of health…

Unfairness Number Six- Health Inequality

If you are poorer, you are far far more likely to be less healthy over the course of your life, to suffer higher burdens of diseases and to die younger. The gap between poorer people and richer people on health is wide and widening. In the interests of brevity I won’t dwell on this, but the statistics are shocking and unacceptable. 

Pioneering work in Scotland also shows how poverty affects your psychological well-being, with increased anxiety and negative physiological reactions.

Which reminds me, it’s also worse for you environmentally…

Unfairness Number Seven- Poorer Environment 

Dear reader, I don’t have the time to assemble the evidence I should here- perhaps you will accept my special pleading that as an ex-senior manager for a national environment agency, I do have some understanding in this area. For now, I’ll rely on a wikipedia definition of environmental inequality 

It has almost always been the case that the richest lived in better environmental conditions than the poorest and things have not really changed. Think how, in the days of really bad environments full of fumes, and odours and fogs, richer people lived upwind of the prevailing wind, or on raised ground. Sadly things have not changed as much as we might have hoped. If you are poorer, you are more likely to live next to a factory, to a noisy environment like a road, to live with poorer air and water quality, you’re less likely to live next to green space (in urban environments), you’re more likely to live in areas that flood, more likely to live next to incinerators or landfills, and more likely to have ‘disamenities’ such as graffiti, dog fouling, litter, vandalism and derelict land in your local environment.


Unfairness Number Eight– Access to Education

This blog is already rather link heavy, so let me just state that the evidence is that you are more likely to go to a poorer performing school if you are poorer, less likely to see a societal valuing of and governmental focus on your technical and vocational skills if that is your path you want to chose, more likely to incur the highest debts if you are a poorer student in Scotland, and much less likely to go to University if you are a poorer student anywhere in the UK. In Scotland if you are a poorer, older learner, you’ve also seen severe cut backs in part-time places for life long learning. Overall, in a modern economy and life-style where education is the key to many things, if you are poorer you’re less likely to be able to access it and its quality may be poorer.


Unfairness Number 9- Access to Legal Services 

A key means to play a full part in society is the ability to defend your reputation, access courts for family disputes or government maladministration, have the ability to right wrongs done to you, and take action the things that matter to you and your community. One might call that access to justice. Sadly, if you are poor, your access to legal advice and the courts is likely to be much worse than a rich person’s. And sadly, that ability seems to be declining. 


Unfairness Number 10- Differences in How The World of Work and Business Treats You

For many well off people, it seems self-evident to them that they need a stable environment, the ability to have a stable legal and governmental system to plan their investments around, and proper incentives to work and to keep a fair share of their income. For some reason though, that position is reversed for how we manage to treat poorer people- from punitive and ineffective welfare sanctions, to lack of workplace rights and security to zero-hours contracts, poorer people tend to form the bulk of the precariat.



When I started to think about this, I must admit that initially I thought about just pre-payment meters. But as my list shows, everything from the cost of your energy, to the quality of your food, to your mental health and life expectancy, and onto your access to legal services, education and stable work, is most likely worse if you are poorer.

Now, some on the right of politics may response by saying ‘look, it’s to be expected, no one wants to see poorer people do less well, but its to be expected- resources in life are a function of ability and the just rewards of the market and we should accept that and mitigate where we can’

Sorry, I reject that view for two reasons. Firstly, as I set out in my blog on societal risks, I believe that some of these risks are entirely foreseeable, a result of systematic problems, poor policy and lack of planning. I believe government has a duty to do something about them. As I said in that blog:

We are searching for things that the state owes an obligation to its citizens to address, across the full range of socio-structural, socio-technological and socio-cultural risks discussed above.

We are searching for things where the state has made decisions between options, and those decisions have consequences for individuals. We are looking for decisions and risks that violate basic rights, and where something can be done about that. We are excluding on the whole individual decisions where a choice was made and it didn’t work out. We are particularly looking for those risks that, absent substantial wealth and resources, it is difficult for an individual to foresee, to manage via self-help alone, and where reasonable efforts are  or have been already made by the citizen to address the risk.’

I think every one of those ‘unfairnesses’ that I list above fall into the risk categories I mention.

More fundamentally, I’m back to the basic structure of society and the principles of a fair and just liberal society. In my blog on this I set out principles to judge such a society, the most challenging of which is the Rawlsian difference principle:

‘Principle 2- Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and

(b)attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.’

I don’t think anyone could read through that list of unfairness towards the poorer members of society and pretend that we are meeting this test. So, we need to do better- it’s a fundamental test of our claim to be a decent society and we are currently failing it. As ever, thanks for reading

Pay Ratios, Inequality and Fairness…

Pay Ratios, Inequality and Fairness…

‘For people to retain faith in capitalism and free markets, big business must earn and keep the trust and confidence of their customers, employees and the wider public. For many ordinary working people – who work hard and have paid into the system all their lives – it’s not always clear that business is playing by the same rules as they are..’

Even Mr Corbyn is Right Sometimes…

I’ve little time for Jeremy Corbyn but just occasionally his instincts are right- as when he recently raised the idea of pay controls for the highly paid.

Now of course the random way he presented it and the lack of nuance made it an easy target but I was surprised and disappointed how quickly people dismissed the idea. Either its apparently ‘just bonkers’, or won’t work, or is bad politics or all of the above.

But I don’t think it is. Yes, we need more than just a cap on pay ratios to address rising inequality and the rising inequality of power that comes with it. Yes, noted that rich people have other sources of income than salaries- including dividends, capital gains and rental income. Yes, the politics may be hard- but I suspect that’s more to do with how our perspective has narrowed after too much centralism over the last 30 years. We can be just too easily led by a consensus that slowly narrows our view.

A Little Background and Some Graphs…

In the 1960s the ratio of a CEO’s pay to that of the average worker was around 20:1, rising to around 40:1 in the 1970s. What is it now? Around 147:1 in the UK and still rising, much higher in the US. There is no convincing evidence that such massive increases of pay, so that a FTSE 100 boss earns £5.5m a year, is really linked to the brilliance or the insight or the output or the outcomes for the company. Instead we have reports like this.



For example, this diagram below shows executive pay plotted against Total Shareholder Returns (TSR). If pay drove performance then you’d expect to see a bunching around a line or curve- but looks pretty random relationship to me.



What Has The UK Done?

Now the UK to be fair has a decent set of corporate governance arrangements in place, as part of a well established rule of law, clear corporate governance codes and steadily increasing transparency.

The Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable introduced reforms in 2013 that including a binding vote on the pay policies of listed companies, and an advisory non-binding vote on individual pay, as well as increasing transparency requirements e.g. here 

When becoming Prime Minister, Teresa May promised further reforms to consider how to give stakeholders more of a say on pay, consider measures to connect to employee, customer and supplier voice, and consider extending requirements from public to larger private companies.

This is all set out in a worthy but rather modest Green Paper.

After the usual rather nice civil service summary of the issues, including this understated point:

CEO pay increases have shown some signs of restraint in recent years. The median 2016 increase so far for FTSE100 CEOs is c.2% (the same as the median increase in 2015), and less than 1% for the top 3013. This comes after very big gains since 1998, however, with a median pay package for FTSE100 CEOs in 2016 of £4.3m. Such high levels of pay may feed a public perception that the top end of the corporate world has become disconnected from the experiences of ordinary working people.’

…the paper duly sets out a few incremental improvements to consider. But there are not enough- reading this from the High Pay Centre gives the statistics. Indeed the white paper quotes polling data suggesting how strongly the public supports action on high pay.

(For example, Opinium research for PWC’s ‘Time to Listen’ paper published in June 2016 found that two-thirds of respondents believe executive pay is too high; and in a YouGov poll for CIPD in Sept 2015, only 14% of respondents agreed that CEO pay is good value for investors) (1) 

But it isn’t just a case of soaking in righteous outrage at fat cats. The paper fails because it considers executive pay to be the concern of owners, shareholders and direct stakeholders like workers, suppliers and customers.

All very well, but consider again the quote at the start of this post:

For people to retain faith in capitalism and free markets, big business must earn and keep the trust and confidence of their customers, employees and the wider public. For many ordinary working people – who work hard and have paid into the system all their lives – it’s not always clear that business is playing by the same rules as they are..’

The quote is actually from Mrs May at the start of the Green Paper. Reading it, it is crystal clear that executive pay is a problem for society, not just individual businesses. There have always been examples on pay restraint based on values, such as the Quakers, or from leading edge companies (John Lewis cap pay at 75:1, Lloyds at 65:1) but this is a systemic problem and requires a public/state led systemic response.

Not the Only Answer But…

Now, on its own a pay ratio cap won’t of course solve inequality but it certainly won’t make it worse. As I’ve written elsewhere:

‘Equality matters because ultimately, people need dignity and respect, they need the ability to execute their life plan, they need a sense of fairness in all of the rules and institutions and processes of society…it is fundamentally whether I feel I am an equal citizen of equal worth, with all the dignity, freedom and ability to execute my life plan that I expect.’

“Are you comfortable with your executive salary?”

Pay ratio caps would be a clear sign that we are all actually part of something collective. For the public sector, where we really want a sense of service, rather than leaders driven by money, we can start with a ratio of 20:1, giving top public servants a handy £200,000+ salary. In the private sector, we can start with publicly listed companies and those  enjoying limited liability and go for a target of 40:1 over time. If you want a higher reward, either don’t work for the public sector or use forms of unlimited liability, with their higher rewards but higher risks.

Oh! It It Just Too Hard or Impractical…

Why not? Well the objections are: it will destroy commerce and business; it’s too hard politically; we won’t be able to compete or attract top talent; it won’t achieve its aims; it will be too easy to avoid.

As I mentioned above, the polls however suggest that there is an argument to be won here.

My responses- it won’t destroy business- we lived with these ratios in the 1970s and were fine.

It is hard politically but given the urgency of addressing the problems of disconnect and inequality we face then a bit of Kennedy-like ‘doing it because it is hard’ seems appropriate.

More seriously, much lower pay levels would indeed drive away many from the public sector or listed companies or those enjoying limited liability. But having met many of those running the big companies, I see no evidence we couldn’t replace them with equally competent people at lower salaries. As for achieving its aims- coupled with other measures it would, and remember, the central aim is to show solidarity, rebuild trust and give people that sense of fairness and equality we so obviously lack at the moment. Avoidance- well we may drive a move towards non-salary reward but other measures can be considered- capital gains reforms, taxing gains on capital and income at the same level above a threshold, wealth taxes etc.

One thing people always seem to forget is both the crucial role of the public sector in creating wealth, and the enormous benefits we allow companies and their owners and leaders to have by allowing limited liability and a legal persona. We have always expected duties on companies in return, and a pay ratio cap would merely be the latest.

As the Green Paper dutifully reports:

‘The United States, France, Sweden, Belgium, Switzerland, Australia and the Netherlands, for example, have all recently introduced, or are actively considering, new measures to strengthen shareholder rights over executive pay and increase public transparency.’

Part of a Broader Agenda …

“If CEO pay packets aren’t a problem… why doesn’t everyone get one?”

If pay ratios on their own don’t do the job, then what else do we need to consider. Well, greater transparency is a must, including in future much more detail on beneficial ownership of companies and land, as Dr Cable mentioned in his speech I linked to above. A great old liberal policy, and one that certain Labour thinkers also considered, is to require worker representation on boards, or to promote cooperatives and mutuals for their socially beneficial impacts.

In order to properly assess what the policy should be, remove the politics once agreed, and provide a firm evidence base, then we should adapt the current Low Pay Commission to take on a remit for advising on and regulating high-pay as well. We’ll have to overcome the Goldman Sachs problem but let’s be honest- we have more things to worry back with that ‘great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity‘ than just pay ratios

Finally, the ever-excellent Matthew Taylor CEO of the RSA, is reviewing the future of work for the government and we need to consider the possible role for basic income schemes on our fairness ideas.

In time we may want to consider either a high pay actual cap (100:1?) and tax breaks for those companies making progress, or faster progress towards our 40:1 goal.



Practical Steps…

‘Does my bonus look big in this?’

So, to summarise:

  • we create a Pay Commission, modelled on the Low Pay Commission but with a remit to create and maintain a high-pay ratios cap system
  • We restrict public sector pay ratios to a maximum of 20:1
  • Over time, we create pay ratios of 40:1 for those listed companies and companies enjoying limited liability
  • We continue to explore a broader agenda on the role of companies in the twenty-first century, how to empower workers and stakeholders
  • We keep pushing on transparency, in this area and on beneficial ownership, tax avoidance and a range of other harms that businesses can cause us.

And once more, why all this? Because unequal societies do worse than more equal ones, because equality and equal status is vital for the dignity of what it means to be human, and because as I set out in my post on the basic principles for a liberal society:

‘Principle 2- Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle..’

I don’t pretend it would be easy- but to make the basic structure of society fairer and more equal, then it seems to me it’s a vital reform…



(1) Quoted in Corporate Governance Report Green Paper November 2016 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy






The Brexit White Paper- Big Holes in All the Wrong Places…

The Brexit White Paper- Big Holes in All the Wrong Places…

I have now had a chance to read the Brexit White paper. I’ve read hundreds of these things in my time (not healthy I know!) and this one appears to me nowhere near as bad as the press reports would have led me to believe in terms of its general structure or presentation. More clarity does indeed emerge and some objectives can be gleaned amid the bland generality and optimistic objectives.

Unfortunately the paper suffers from four major weaknesses:

– The tendency to suggest that because there is a mutual interest in succeeding between the UK and the EU, say for example on passporting of financial services, that there is therefore an identical mutual interest. In fact it’s clearly far more important to the UK than the EU on sheer weight of interest and numbers. This tendency to elide common interest into identical interest is a major weakness.Ironically, this flippant blindness is very similar to the SNP/Scottish independence campaign’s approach to UK relations post-separation
– Environmental protection- this is an obvious common and pan-European need to manage effectively- from transboundary air pollution to illegal waste shipments, from common carbon emissions trading schemes to marine planning. However the environment is barely mentioned- an astonishing absence considering that for example, workers’ rights get a chapter to itself, that future food, farming and marine policy will be up for grabs in the largest change in 50 years, that the bulk of UK environment law (80%+) is founded on EU law, and that environment is most at risk from the aggressive free trade open economy ideas that the government has floated
– Devolved nations and the future of the constitution- the paper is very weak indeed and provides neither answers nor ideas for the future relationship suggested between the various parts of the UK, clearly risking the future of the union with its insouciance and arrogance (and with signs that this is moving the poll numbers back towards Scots independence)
– Missing the bigger picture- Ok! We can possibly agree that the EU can be annoying; that the CAP is a nonsense; that the Greeks have been screwed by the Commission, the ECB and a German-led ordo-liberal model; that the loss of control of immigration is not an unreasonable thing to argue over. Yes, on reflection it’s clear that the elites were too arrogant or afraid to seek the people’s consent for the major changes 1986-2010.

But overall the elites were surely right in what they sought to achieve- for the real purpose of the EU isn’t economic any more. It is to bring us together in ways that deliver mutual common interest, that prevent war, that give Europe a voice in an increasingly Eastern-facing world, and which grow the common bonds of mutual respect, cultural ties and the ways of peace.

On that measure, the white paper is an enormous failure…

Public Thinking As It Should Be- A Tribute to Tony Atkinson

Public Thinking As It Should Be- A Tribute to Tony Atkinson 

“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws – or crafts its advanced treatises – if I can write its economics textbooks,”Paul Samuelson,Economics: An Introductory Analysis, 1948

This post I want to take a break from the rather abstract thoughts posted so far, to pay my own brief tribute to a wonderful man Tony Atkinson, who died earlier this month. I didn’t know Mr Atkinson in person but by common agreement he was a giant in his chosen field of academic economics, namely the study of inequality and poverty. Other tributes are here and here.

Not only did he shape the field of poverty and inequality studies with his research, his ability to communicate and his ideas, he also led a series of institutions and approaches that, with for example Thomas Piketty, now shape our discussions of these issues. And he cared about and wanted to solve the issue of poverty, not just research it.

Towards the end of his long career, Mr Atkinson published a work on Inequality that I would highly recommend- ‘Inequality- What Can Be Done?’(1)

The book is not only an excellent primer in how inequality is actually measured, but also how it has changed over the last 50 years, in the UK but in other countries. Most of interest may be the solutions that are offered, born of a life-times thinking about the issues.

You can see him speaking about these ideas here and here 


What Did He Call For? 

I won’t comment on these proposals, other than to say this- if we are serious about inequality then these sorts of ideas are what we must debate, and work out how to progress. I would also say they fit very well with the principles I was writing about earlier and that such strong action is justified given the inimical effects of inequality.


The 15 Proposals from Tony Atkinson’s ‘Inequality – What can be done?’

Proposal 1: The direction of technological change should be an explicit concern of policy-makers, encouraging innovation in a form that increases the employability of workers and emphasises the human dimension of service provision.

Proposal 2: Public policy should aim at a proper balance of power among stakeholders, and to this end should

  • (a) introduce an explicitly distributional dimension into competition policy;
  • (b) ensure a legal framework that allows trade unions to represent workers on level terms; and
  • (c) establish, where it does not already exist, a Social and Economic Council involving the social partners and other nongovernmental bodies.

Proposal 3: The government should adopt an explicit target for preventing and reducing unemployment and underpin this ambition by offering guaranteed public employment at the minimum wage to those who seek it.

Proposal 4: There should be a national pay policy, consisting of two elements: a statutory minimum wage set at a living wage, and a code of practice for pay above the minimum, agreed as part of a “national conversation” involving the Social and Economic Council.

Proposal 5: The government should offer via national savings bonds a guaranteed positive real rate of interest on savings, with a maximum holding per person.

Proposal 6: There should be a capital endowment (minimum inheritance) paid to all at adulthood.

Proposal 7: A public Investment Authority should be created, operating a sovereign wealth fund with the aim of building up the net worth of the state by holding investments in companies and in property.

Proposal 8: We should return to a more progressive rate structure for the personal income tax, with marginal rates of tax increasing by ranges of taxable income, up to a top rate of 65 per cent, accompanied by a broadening of the tax base.

Proposal 9: The government should introduce into the personal income tax an Earned Income Discount, limited to the first band of earnings.

Proposal 10: Receipts of inheritance and gifts inter vivos should be taxed under a progressive lifetime capital receipts tax.

Proposal 11: There should be a proportional, or progressive, property tax based on up-to-date property assessments.

Proposal 12: Child Benefit should be paid for all children at a substantial rate and should be taxed as income.

Proposal 13: A participation income should be introduced at a national level, complementing existing social protection, with the prospect of an EU-wide child basic income.

Proposal 14 (alternative to 13): There should be a renewal of social insurance, raising the level of benefits and extending their coverage.

Proposal 15: Rich countries should raise their target for Official Development Assistance to 1 per cent of Gross National Income.