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Category: Scotland

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.


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.

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:


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.


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:


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.

Slovakia’s election: another majority government from a proportional electoral system

On Saturday 10th March 2012, Slovakia joined the small but growing club of European countries that elected a majority government despite using a proportional representation system.  The centre-left Smer party, led by Robert Fico, won 86 out of 150 seats with 44.9% of the vote.  Although it was predicted that Smer would win the election, even Fico himself was surprised by the scale of the result.

Since the euro-zone crisis started to bite, strong anti-incumbency sentiments have regularly produced extreme results. In Hungary, Fidesz won more than a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2010 with 68% of the popular vote.  In Scotland, a proportional electoral system unexpectedly produced a majority government in 2011, when the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won 69 out of 129 seats with 45% of the vote.

These recent cases show that proportional representation does not necessarily lead to minority or coalition governments.  The strong bias in favour of this outcome can be over-ridden if one single party becomes the repository of protest votes.  In Slovakia and Hungary, the incumbent coalition governments were badly damaged by the eurozone crisis and corruption scandals.  In Scotland, the SNP had led a minority government for the previous four years, but two other major parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) were punished electorally for decisions taken in London. In each of these countries, large numbers of voters opted for the one party that was perceived to be ‘untainted’.

Majoritarian governments have also produced unexpected results in recent years; minority or coalition governments were formed in the UK and Australia.  In both cases, a third party (the Liberal Democrats in the UK at the Greens in Australia) picked up significant support.  Although these third party votes did not translate proportionally into parliamentary representation, they were sufficient to deny either of the main parties an outright majority.

In these difficult economic times, voters like to kick incumbents hard, leading to extreme results.  Whether or not electoral systems behave as political scientist think they ‘should’ depends largely on the dynamics of protest voting.

Follow Alison Smith on twitter @alifionasmith

The Myth of the ‘Mighty Minnows’

Nationalist movements often argue that small countries are more economically successful than big ones.  The Scottish Nationalist Party claims that independence would allow Scotland to advance from ‘its subordinate position within the UK, and generate a new prosperity for Scotland.’  And former Plaid Cymru MP, Adam Price, who is currently taking a career break at Harvard University, goes further,wrapping the ‘small equals rich’ argument in a cloak of pseudo-academic jargon.

Price’s article, published in an on-line student journal, is entitled ‘Small is Cute, Sexy and Successful’.  He argues that smaller countries grow faster because they are more open to trade, more socially cohesive and more adaptable.  Rather optimistically, Price even argues that differences in population size alone account for ‘mighty minnows’ outperforming the big five (UK, Italy, Germany, France and Spain) between 1997 and 2007.  Furthermore, he argues that small countries did no worse than large countries when financial catastrophe hit in 2008, concluding that a ‘rising tide lifts small boats faster, it seems, but they are no more likely to sink in a storm.’

Although ‘Small is Cute’ is littered with academic terminology, Price’s analysis lacks any pretence of scholarly rigour. He jumps between different sets of countries and different time frames, cherry-picking examples from the six original Coal and Steel Community states, the EU15 and the EU27.  Sometimes he presents data from 1979-2007, and sometimes he presents figures from 1996-2009.  He is rarely clear about which data set is being referenced.

His arguments are also weak.  The Bosnians and the Belgians may be interested to hear that small countries are more cohesive than big ones. But Price’s most naïve contention of all is that small, export-driven countries fare no worse than larger countries in hard times.  In reality, the very reliance of small countries on trade, much vaunted by Price, leaves them particularly vulnerable to downturns in the global economy.

Latvia’s GDP plummeted by 18% in 2009.

The Lithuanian economy shrank by 15% in 2009.

Estonia’s economy contracted by 13.9% in 2009.

In the same year, Slovenia lost 7.3% of its GDP, Ireland’s economy shrank by 7%, Iceland’s by 6.8% and Hungary’s by 6.7%.

Unable to access credit on bond markets, many of these countries were forced to accept IMF bailouts in exchange for blistering austerity measures.  Far from enjoying prosperity, these countries are still straining for any glimpse of recovery on the horizon.

So, Adam Price’s article is nine parts polemic and one part academic, and talk of ‘mighty minnows’ is mere wishful thinking.