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Category: Politics

Westminster Must Unite, Not Divide

To the ears of comparative political scientists, the idea of an ‘unwritten constitution’ sounds like a bit of an oxymoron.  While it is possible to argue that vagueness and flexibility of Britain’s founding documents have served the British Isles well over the years, the resulting constitutional hodge podge of an ‘asymmetric unitary state’ is starting to look unsustainable.  Over the next few years, it is likely that the limits of the current system will be tested by the diverging ambitions of Scotland and England.

The devolution settlements of the late 1990s led to the establishment of legislative assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with differing powers. No equivalent legislative body was set up in England (or in the English regions) leaving the Westminster Parliament as the main legislative body for England. This situation is becoming untenable as the Scottish Parliament (already the most powerful of the devolved assemblies) demands the delivery of promised extra powers, while the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has played to the discontent of English voters by suggesting that Scottish MPs should no longer be able to vote on legislation that applies to England only.

Cameron is right to point out the unfairness of Scottish MPs voting on matters that do not affect their constituents.  However,  the paradox of the West Lothian Question has only haunted the legislative process in the United Kingdom for the last forty years because of the contradiction inherent in current legislative arrangements.  Westminster increasingly acts as a quasi-federal assembly for the people of Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales and Northern Ireland), but remains the primary legislature for the people of England.  Attempting to solve this contradiction purely by excluding Scottish MPs from much of the work of the Westminster Parliament would be the political equivalent of two cyclists attempting to ride a tandem bicycle in opposite directions.

In advocating ‘English votes for English laws’, David Cameron is essentially proposing that  Westminster move further towards being a dual English and a British legislature.  This is a terrible idea.  If Westminster is not free to focus on matters that unite England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, instead becoming a source of further division, then we cannot be surprised if the home nations drift further apart in the coming years.   Surely a more logical solution would be a devolution settlement for England that meets the ambitions articulated by David Cameron, combined with a Westminster Parliament that is designed to bring the four nations together in a common purpose.

Why the UKIP Problem Will Get Worse Before it Gets Better

imagesIt’s official.  The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has arrived as a presence in British local government.  Elections last night saw a dramatic increase in their number of council seats; of the results so far announced, they have successfully defended two seats and gained 155.  Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary, conceded that Britain was entering an era of ‘four party politics’.

From a wider European perspective, anti-EU, anti-immigration populism has been relatively slow to make an impact in Britain.  Such parties are already well-established in most western European party systems.  The process has taken longer in the UK because the first-past-the-post electoral system strongly favours established parties at the expense of newcomers.    However, the sociological bases of right-wing populist support have much in common across western Europe.

It is usually well understood that anti-EU, anti-immigration populist parties gain support from ultra-conservative voters, many of whom favour a very tough stance on law and order and immigration, and have strong and traditional views on national identity.  Such voters have always existed in small numbers in the UK.  The more moderate stance of UKIP (compared, for example, to the BNP) casts a wider net around the far right of the political spectrum.

Less well understood, however, is the increasing number of former Labour voters who are turning to UKIP.  This is a product of the interaction between de-industrialisation, which has led to an increasing scarcity of skilled working class jobs across north-western Europe, and immigration, which is perceived to create increased competition for those scarce jobs.

Put simply, globalisation and neo-liberal policies, which have dominated economic and political thinking across western Europe since the 1980s, have created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  The ‘winners’ are the most educated and those who already have capital: these groups can take advantage of the increased opportunities to work, travel and conduct business across borders.  At the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, life has become harder.  Mines close because they are no longer efficient.  Factories move to Romania or China.  Tasks formerly carried out by skilled manual workers are now completed by computers or robots.

For the most part, these problems are not caused by the European Union.  Successive British governments have chosen to embrace neo-liberal reforms.  Globalisation and automation would happen whether or not Britain was a member of the EU.

However, the ‘losers’ of globalisation are a large sociological group, and one that has felt entirely unrepresented since the mid-1990s, when the Labour Party distanced itself from the unions and staked out new territory in the political centre.  During the same period, the European Union has expanded both its powers (particularly post-Maastricht) and size (following the 2004 and 2007 expansions).

In the absence of proper representation, debate, and recognition of their concerns, the ‘losers of globalisation’ have become increasingly disenfranchised, and thus ripe for mobilisation by anti-immigration, anti-European populists.  The economic crisis of 2008-2012 fuelled this already-toxic mix.

Britain’s traditional political parties miss the point when they decry UKIP as ‘racists’ and ‘scare mongerers’.  By huddling in the centre/centre-right, and focussing on media-management at the expense of formulating original policies, or building links with society, Britain’s ‘traditional’ political parties have left both the right and the left of the political spectrum wide open, a situation that is ripe for what the eminent political scientist, Giovanni Sartori, termed ‘centrifugal competition’.   Until mainstream political parties recognise the extent of the sociological change that has occurred in Britain, and the new demands that this creates, support for protest parties and populist parties is likely to continue to grow.

Dr Alison Smith holds a DPhil from St Antony’s College, Oxford.  She teaches Comparative Government, European Politics, Politics of the EU and Russian Politics.  You can follow her on Twitter @AliFionaSmith

 

 

Hungarian Election: Ruling Coalition Retains Two-Thirds Majority

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Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, celebrated a historic victory today after his right-wing Fidesz/Christian Democrat coalition retained its two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament, winning 133 out of 199 seats.  Fidesz’s nearest competitors, the centre-left alliance, Unity, secured just 38 seats, while the far-right Jobbik won 23 seats.  Full results are available here.

The Hungarian election of April 6 2014 was the first to be held under the new electoral system, which almost halved the available number of seats from 386 to 199.  The electoral system remains an ‘unlinked’ (non-compensatory) mixed system, but 106 seats are now allocated through single member districts (SMD), while 93 are allocated through party lists.  The new system is less proportional than the old system (which allocated half the seats through party lists and had smaller single member districts); thus Orban was able to retain his two-thirds majority despite winning 800,000 fewer votes than in 2010.

There are few real checks and balances in the Hungarian political system, which is unicameral and has an indirectly elected head of state.  Concerns have been already raised about judicial independence and media freedom.  Securing a two-thirds majority in the parliament allows the ruling party to engage in a further bout of constitutional tinkering.

Decapitated in Kyiv, Lenin finds safety in the bosom of capitalism

The decapitation of the Lenin Statue in Kyiv on December 8th 2013 was a visible symbol of the current tensions in Ukraine, where young pro-EU protestors continue to demonstrate against the recent decision of President Yanukovych  to abandon an Association Agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.

However, it might equally be asked how this relic of the Soviet era lasted for so long.  There are few more tangible representations of the transition away from communism than the removal of Soviet-era statues. Kyiv’s protestors argue that Lenin has long been squatting, given that former President Yushchenko signed a decree ordering the removal of the statue in 2009.

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Protestors in Kyiv decapitate the Lenin Statue on Shevchenko Boulevard

Ukrainians are far from the first in the former Soviet sphere to face dilemmas over the fate of Soviet-era statues.  The Estonian have shown little appetite for keeping souvenirs of this difficult period in their history.  Monuments to Lenin, Stalin and Stakhanovite ‘comrades’ were quietly rounded up and unceremoniously dumped in the back garden of the Estonian History Museum.  There they lie, forgotten and unloved, reflecting the sentiment of a country that is so keen to forget about its long occupation that it won’t even organise a formal disposal for Lenin and his cronies.

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Soviet-era statues abandoned in the back garden of the Estonian History Museum in Tallinn

However, the transition away from communism also heralded the beginning of a period of vigorous capitalism.  In Lithuania, one canny entrepreneur realised that, while the local population would rather forget about the Soviet-era, there was money to be made from curious tourists.  The statues were collected and displayed in a theme park, where tourists can gawp for a charging a basic entry fee for 20 litas (€5).  A further 26 litas buys an audio guide,

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Lenin sits comfortably in the Grūto Parkas, Druskininkai, Lithuania

While protestors in Kyiv continue to hack away at a statue that has out-stayed its welcome, it is ironic that Lenin’s safest and most comfortable resting place has been within the very bosom of capitalism.

East-West Divide within Ukraine Mirrors EU-Russia Tug-of-War

The 2004 Orange Revolution, and the current EuroMaidan protests, have been widely reported in the European media as symbolising the will of the Ukrainian people to overthrow an autocratic government in favour of a democratic future within the European Union.  However, the reality is more complex.  Ukraine is a country divided.  Citizens of the Russian-speaking south and east strongly favour the current president Viktor Yanukovych, while citizens in the north and west favour a future within Europe.

The political divide in Ukraine is demonstrated starkly by the the results of the 2010 election, which are represented in the map below.  The brown, red, orange and yellow areas show strong support for the former Prime Minister and (now imprisoned) Orange Revolution leader, Yulia Tymoshenko.  The blue areas support the current President, Viktor Yanukovych, with equal fervour.

2010 Presidential Election Results:

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The geopolitical tug-of-war between the European Union and Russia is mirrored by a cultural conflict within Ukraine itself, a country with a turbulent history.  The far west of the country, where support for Tymoshenko is strongest, was Polish territory until 1939.  Given its history, it is hardly surprising that this region is most hostile to an orientation towards Russia.   However, in his recent decision to ally  with Russia, President Yanukovych has played to his core support in the east, a constituency that is equally powerful.

Of course, the situation is not quite so clear cut.  Yanukoych himself talked up the benefits of signing the EU association agreement before abruptly bowing to Russian pressure, and many Ukrainians in the south and east favour improved links with the west.  As relevant as language and culture are other demographic factors, most notably age: across Ukraine, young people are significantly more likely than older people to support links with Europe.  Indeed, it is Ukraine’s millennials that have led the charge against Yanukovych’s decision to reject a future in Europe.

Neither the Nationalists Nor Unionists Can Guarantee Scotland’s Future in Europe. Why Pretend Otherwise?

Last night’s televised debate between Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) Deputy Leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, disappointed all but the most fiercely partisan viewers by refusing to acknowledge the real elephant in the room: that neither side can promise Scotland a future in Europe.

The SNP argues that joining the European Union will be a smooth process, completed within 19 months of a ‘Yes’ vote in September 2014.  If Scotland becomes independent, they argue, it will begin its new life as an independent nation with a seat at the ‘top table’ of international affairs.  On 24th March 2016, Scotland will become the European Union’s 29th Member State.

“Not so fast!” says Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister.  Of course, Spain has its own separatist regions, so Mr Rajoy has no interest in making the process easy.  New Member States must be admitted by unanimous agreement.  Thus, the process of accession has been torturous for states like Macedonia, whose aspirations are consistently blocked by neighbouring Greece.

The Scottish Nationalists argue that it is in nobody’s interests to block Scottish accession, but that is not necessarily true.  Every state containing a region with separatist ambitions has an incentive to make life as difficult as possible for Scotland to become independent in Europe.  More prosaic interests may, of course, prevail.  However, the Nationalists’ promises of swift and painless membership negotiations, completed within 19 months, are very much the best case scenario.

If the Scottish Nationalists have jumped the gun by promising continued EU membership, Unionists are no better placed to offer guarantees.  The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has promised an in-out referendum on European Union membership in 2017.  According to YouGov polling, such a referendum would make British exit from the EU likely by 2020.  This referendum is far from certain to proceed, since it would rely on the Conservative Party winning an outright majority in the 2015 election, which looks unlikely under current circumstances.  However, the British Labour Party has also adopted increasingly trenchant rhetoric on Europe.

More than any other topic, discussions about Europe hold a mirror to the cultural differences between Scotland and England.   Scotland is sparsely populated and has traditionally worried more about depopulation than immigration.  It has a different media structure, so people north of the border have little exposure to strongly anti-European commentary.  Scotland has no post-imperial mindset or expectations of great international influence.  As a result, its political leaders have not faced to pressure to indulge in a ‘race to the bottom’ on Europe.  When the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, visited Edinburgh he was run out of town, ironically to cries of, “Go home, you racist!”

When Scots go to the referendum polls in September 2014, predicting the country’s future in Europe will be like playing a game of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’.   Would other European nations make an independent Scotland’s EU accession difficult?  Will Westminster politicians continue to sabotage Britain’s relationship with Europe, potentially leading to a BrExit?   Either way, the search for guarantees is likely to be futile.

Latvian PM Resigns Following Supermarket Roof Collapse

The Latvian Prime Minister, Valdis Dombrovskis, has resigned following the collapse of a supermarket roof in Riga, which resulted in 54 deaths.  Dombrovskis, who became Prime Minister in 2009, steered Latvia though a difficult recession after the global financial crisis led to a 25% drop in GDP between Q4 2007 and Q4 2009.

Although Dombrovskis had not been blamed for the supermarket deaths, the 42-year-old Prime Minister tendered his resignation today, accepting “moral and political responsibility” for the disaster.  The Latvian economy has grown at one of the fastest rates in Europe in recent years, but corruption levels remain high.  The tragic supermarket collapse in Riga is likely to be attributed to a breach of building regulations.  Furthermore, the nation’s Building Inspectorate had been phased out, with Dombrovskis’s support, as part of far-reaching austerity measures in 2009.

With the next election scheduled for October 2014, it is likely that a coalition of current parliamentary parties will form a new government.  Parties will begin meeting next week, with the goal of forming a new government by the end of the year.

Scottish Independence White Paper: The Good, The Bad and the Utterly Deluded

Today the Scottish Government launched a White Paper to set out their arguments for Scottish independence.  Here are just a few of the details to emerge from the 670-page tome.

The Good

The SNP has reaffirmed its support for the European Union, pointing out that an independent nation would not risk being ejected from the EU against the wishes of the Scottish people.  The White Paper also highlighted the damage caused by the current UK immigration regime, particularly to the higher education sector.  The report promises:

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The Bad

One of the more disingenuous passages of the White Paper also referred to the tertiary education sector.  The SNP plans to continue charging students from the rest of the UK full tuition fees to attend Scottish universities.  Yet, an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would be distinct Member States under EU law.  The Scottish Government must be aware that following this policy would swiftly put them on the wrong end of an ECJ judgement.  Likely they are hoping to stall the question of university funding until after the referendum.

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The Vague

The SNP argues that an independent Scotland would keep the pound, the monarchy and a number of other British institutions.  Yet they have also promised to remove nuclear weapons from Scottish soil as a top priority, which would sour relations with the rest of the UK.  Commentators have long argued that an independent Scotland would have no option but to keep Trident in exchange for constructive cooperation with the Rest of the UK.  So, tucked away in the White Paper, here is the SNP’s get-out clause:

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The ‘Not As Good As It Sounds’

Politicians have a knack of dressing up ‘jam tomorrow’ as ‘a steak dinner today’ and the White Paper launch was no different.  The Deputy First Minister unveiled a new policy of universal childcare.  Just a couple of problems.  First, the Scottish Parliament already has responsibility for childcare, and the SNP have governed Scotland since 2007.  Why must hard-pressed families, suffering under very poor childcare provision by northern European standards, wait for independence before this problem is sorted?  And second, the promise of universal childcare for two-year-olds will not come into force until 2024.

And the Utterly Deluded

On international affairs, the report argues that an independent Scotland would benefit from having ‘a seat at the top table to represent Scotland’s interests more effectively.’  Now, one could argue that a ‘seat at the top table’ is more trouble than it’s worth.  But to argue that a country of five million people will have a place at the top table of international affairs?

Scottish Independence White Paper Offers Little Clarity for Frustrated Scots

The temperature of Scotland’s independence debate has finally started to rise, but sadly the argument continues to produce more heat than light.  Despite the publication of today’s White Paper on Scottish Independence, the narratives haven’t changed on either side: the SNP promises a land of milk and honey, while the Better Together campaign continues to warn that an independent Scotland would be isolated and poor.  Increasingly frustrated voters have resorted to sarcasm, with one joking that an independent Scotland could always use Irn Bru empties as a currency.

The promises in the White Paper largely fall into two categories: (1) things that the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) can already enact under the current devolution settlement; and (2) matters over which the SNP has little control.  Proposing universal childcare falls into the first category. The SNP clearly favours Scandinavian-style public services without Scandinavian levels of taxation.  But unless substantial changes to taxation are needed, there is nothing to stop the SNP, who have a majority in the Scottish Parliament, from introducing universal childcare tomorrow.  Have they been holding back their big announcement as a bribe for independence, leaving Scots to struggle with inadequate childcare in the meantime?  Or will the practicalities of such a scheme require more money than is currently available?

The list of matters over which the SNP has no control, or will have to negotiate, is extensive.  For example, Scotland wants to keep the pound, but this will rely on goodwill from the rest of the UK.  This is unlikely to be forthcoming without compromise from the Scots.  If the UK’s nuclear weapons, currently based on Clydeside, are ordered off Scottish soil immediately, it is hardly likely that a currency union will be forthcoming.  Realistically, an independent Scotland would end up trading these two priorities.

If the SNP’s practical case for independence has more holes than a Swiss cheese, the Better Together campaign is equally aereated.  The SNP have nick-named it ‘Project Fear’, and not unreasonably so.  Plenty of countries smaller than Scotland have forged happy and productive nations within the EU and NATO.  From Ireland in the west to Estonia in the east, none of these countries regret their independence, despite its challenges.

In the short term, all the ‘No’ campaign needs to do is plant seeds of doubt in the minds of undecided voters.  Better Together is in the lead, so there is no need to give hostages to fortune.  However, if they are to put the independence debate to bed, at least for a generation, they need to make a positive case for the future of the UK.  An apathetic discussion, followed by a close result, will only keep the issue of independence on the agenda, resulting in an indefinite limbo for Scotland and an ever more snarky relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK.  That is in nobody’s interests.

The Return of Local Democracy to Russia?

Today’s news (10th September 2013) has reported promising developments in Russia, where an opposition candidate, Alexey Navalny, won 27% of the vote in Moscow mayoral elections.  An anti-drugs activist, also without Kremlin approval, won 33% of the vote in Ekaterinburg to become the new mayor.  The Kremlin’s tentative steps towards restoring elements of local ‘democracy’ are not going entirely to plan.

Although some news outlets, including the FT, have hailed the ‘return of real politics in Russia’, no-one underestimates the scale of the task ahead.   Through the combined use of patronage and coercion, the Kremlin’s ‘power vertical’ remains very much in-tact.  It does not hesitate to use repression, making it very difficult for genuine oppositionists to organise.  Obstacles stand in the way of coordinating public gatherings, registering political parties and nominating opposition candidates. Without access to the mass media, opposition parties must win 7% of the vote across Russia in order to gain representation in the Duma.  That would be a formidable task even if the votes were counted fairly, which they often are not.

Therefore, while Putin’s grip on power looks shakier than it has done in the past, it is still a force to be reckoned with.    The Kremlin has tended to respond to challenges to their power by increasing repression.  In the worst case scenario, the minor breakthroughs of these local elections may point to even more challenging times ahead for Russian democrats.

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