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 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.

New Ideas Number 1- Public Ownership But Not As We Know It Jim

New Ideas Number 1- Public Ownership But Not As We Know It Jim

I promised new ideas when I started out on this blog, so this week I thought I’d make good on the promise. I want to set our briefly an idea for a new understanding of, or means of, public ownership. Or more precisely, my take on what is probably a well-known idea.

When we think of public ownership, too often we think of strikes, poor service, inefficiency or Ministers fiddling about with the decisions of managers, as Gerald Kaufman talked about in his great little book on How To Be a Minister. Or we think of images like these:

But I want to suggest that there is more to public ownership than coal mining or other giant monopoly industries, or great swathes of remote forest and upland. This website gives a pretty good (if standard) take on common ideas.

I also want to discount the traditional British form of public ownership, where we assume the state must own the property and take decisions on our behalf e.g. Brtish Steel, British Leyland, the forests estates etc. That leads to poorly thought through proposals to sell off public land by ‘passing ministers’ with too much power and not enough awareness of tradition and place, when proposed either at UK or Scottish levels.

I think the history of public ownership in the UK is very mixed, and has always been subject to passing political whim. Ministers will always be tempted to meddle in the running of businesses, either by second guessing management, or stripping out profit, or denying capital, or using price as a constraint on demand or by simply removing the competitive edge- managers know if they mess up the state will always be there to pick up the pieces. And so many right wingers want things to fail to justify privatisation. So, I’d say there are practical and theoretical reasons (1) to be cautious about the traditional form of public ownership in the UK, without ruling it out entirely of course.

I also don’t mean to say that the sort of mechanical socialism and Fabianism that dominated Labour and left-wing thinking for so long is the only way. But instead that of course that are many other means and forms of ownership- from the ancient world of estovers and pannage, to modern forms of common land and access , to Rochdale cooperative principles and mutuals.

But the problem with the traditional approach is that it tends to assume only two main actors- the private sector and the state, with no room for real members of the public. The problem with other forms of ownership such as common land, mutuals, co-operatives and others, is that either not enough people want the hassle of running the show themselves, or that they are too small to really affect trends, or that they are still subject to passing whims on taxation, regulation and incentives.

So What Is The Big Idea?

 So, enough with the throat-clearing and down to business. What is my idea?

My idea is simply this- that ownership of public assets should be transferred from the state to the public. More precisely, those who meet certain rules of UK citizenship will automatically become the owners of state assets. As owners they will have rights and responsibilities, and it will be for them as owners to decide on the future of major policy decisions including sell-off of local land, closure of facilities, or privatisation.

What do I mean by state assets. I mean firstly the transfer of all crown lands from the arcane fiction of the ‘Crown’ to members of the public. Not just that we would own (small shares in!) Buckingham Palace, but that we’d own the sea-bed, the foreshore, the airwaves and so on. Secondly I mean that at a regional and local level we’d own the roads, the railways, the land, the hospitals, schools, council buildings and so on.

Setting out one more time- whilst management of the assets would be vested in our representatives (and through them public employees)  as now, either at national, regional or local government levels, the legal ownership of the assets would be shared across UK citizens.

Now, we’d need some rules first of all about who qualifies. My suggestion is that anyone who has reached voting age and who is on the electoral register is entitled to a fraction of ownership and would be recognised as such. We don’t have to make ownership conditional on electoral registration of course but it might provide a boost to voting and participation in democracy.

Secondly, we’d need to define what rights and responsibilities such ownership entails. My view is that responsibilities are ‘civic’ in the sense of keeping up to date with trends and developments associated with the assets. And secondly that if a vote is called on something, one is required to participate. But I believe these responsibilities should be modest, whilst also empowering.

What does the idea mean in practice? Well, I’d suggest at local level that anyone on the local electoral register would be considered a part owner of the assets from all state bodies in the area- including government buildings, parks, roads, schools, forests, common land, hospitals and so on.

Secondly, it means that the managers of the assets- our current state-led pubic bodies, would take on a new role of stewardship, not the sometimes rather technocratic, aloof and arrogant ‘ownership to do with as we please on a change of political leadership’ approach we (too often) see. I believe for key local assets often at the centre of controversy- land sold off for new developments, planning decisions, closure of hospitals, that representative bodies will need to work far harder to secure agreement.

My idea is that according to some local ‘standing orders’ that define the limits of state authority and the circumstances under which change is allowed, that the state and local managers will need to be far more engaged in place, in community and in explaining and justifying decision making. We can imagine for example a proposal to sell off a school playing field where either all local people in the council area, or a defined subset ‘affected’ by the plans, will be able to demand, hold a referendum and defeat the proposal, perhaps much like a shareholder resolution can defeat the management of a company or send a strong signal on the desired direction of travel.

We can imagine consultative discussions held at national and local level with citizens (as owners) on the ideas a state entity is considering, before they are activated or indeed placed in manifestos. We can imagine a dedicated public body, analogous to the electoral commission, (the ‘Consultative Commission’ perhaps), taking national or regional or indeed local ‘rolling polls’ of the views of citizen-owners prior to an election campaign. We might find that citizens recognise a central hospital would be cheaper and more effective but want to keep their local hospital. We might find that citizens like keeping local job centres and tax offices or reject out of hand private companies running certain public functions.

One obvious issue to consider is the precise relationship between local and national decision making- but I think that can be overcome with enough thought. A second obvious issue is to define the circle of ‘affected’ people tightly enough so a local desire for action isn’t swamped by a national or regional push-back, whilst at the same time allowing meaningful and engaged citizens across a defined but not just hyper-local area. We would need to think carefully to avoid the problems encountered with the referenda-heavy, money-heavy policy and campaigning approach seen in California. We would need to look for ways for assets to be protected from a generation simply ‘cashing in’ as many did over the transfer of building societies from mutuals to private companies in the 1990s. 

 

Why Propose This? 

To me, this is a radically different proposal from standard common ownership. We are asserting the genuine power of citizens, as the owners of state assets, which, after all, their taxes and efforts have paid for. I hope it will improve the sense that citizens have of engagement with, and empowerment over, the political process.

I hope it would sharpen up the performance of state actors, across the education, council, health, environment, tax, social security and transport communities. I expect it would reduce the power of ideologues, winner-takes-all political administrations, think tanks and media moguls. I hope it would even reduce vandalism and disrespect for public property because after all, the owner in this case is the person considering the damage!

More broadly as well as linking ownership rights to voting and electoral registration, we could link it to the idea of a basic income, which I blogged on before. 

 

What Are the Downsides? 

Clearly I don’t have all the details worked out so much more work would be needed to translate this outline sketch into serious policy proposals. It may be that the idea isn’t radical at all, and is common in other countries (please let me know if it is!).

More work would be needed on legal definitions to ensure watertight ownership, and to define a ‘scheme of delegation and authority’ from local citizens to state entities. If we did take over Crown property, some more legal work would be needed to overcome centuries of daft constitutional showboating, overhangs and silly fiction.

More seriously, we’d need to undertake a large campaign of awareness raising to ensure people really did feel empowered and understood their rights and responsibilities. A crucial point as I mentioned above is to provide enough ’empowerment’ that a genuine local wish to prevent something occurring can be created, whilst avoiding a tidal-wave of NIMBY-style inertia and factionalism. But I see no reason why with enough care, such problems couldn’t be overcome.

 

Part of A Bigger Picture? 

 

Readers may have noticed that such a scheme, radical as it may sound, does not by any means tackle all of the fundamental issues facing us. Whilst I do believe it would go a long way to increase the sense of engagement with the state and empowerment that citizens feel, it only touches the surface of inequality issues.

In particular, it ignores the pattern and distribution of private ownership of resources- land, income and wealth, company shares, rental income and dividend etc. There are some fascinating ideas on newer forms of capitalism that I want to explore at a later date, centred around market socialism ideas.

To finish though , the real reason I think the idea would be worth exploring is back to my ideas on a fair, equal and liberal 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.’

In that blog I set out a principle for just such a society which I think is relevant here:

Principle 5 The basic structure of society should be designed such that power is dispersed politically at multiple levels and across multiple geographical areas, consistent with the achievement of other principles and goals

I believe that we simply must go beyond discussions about tax and spend wealth transfers, about public vs private and get to a point where citizens really do feel equal, empowered and ‘all in it together’. I hope the idea I’d proposed might have some merit on the journey towards that ambition.

Thanks for reading.

 

Notes

(1) John Roemer A Future for Socialism (1994) Verso Books ISBN-13: 978-0860916536

 

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: http://budgetresponsibility.org.uk) 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.

 

Notes

(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