Monday, 22 October 2012

I am Not a Nationalist - BUT

Chambers dictionary defines a nationalist as, "one who favours or strives after the unity, independence, interests or domination of a nation; a member of a political party specially so called." It is frequently seen as something unsavoury and chauvinism, imperialism even racism are often used as synonyms. There are different theories of when Nationalism became a potent political force, with some political scientists claiming it is a modern concept, pointing to the unification movements in Europe as evidence of same. It is true that Germany and Italy only became nation states in 1870 under the leadership of Bismarck and Prussia and Cavour and Garibaldi respectively, but Scots had achieved their independence as a nation and had established the nation state, with national territorial boundaries very close to those we have today, with the Treaty of Northampton in 1329. The Czech people lost their independence when their Bohemian state was defeated at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, but they had occupied that territory from the 9th century. They regained it in part, when Czechoslovakia was formed in the aftermath of the first World War in 1918 but it was not until 1993 that the country we know as the Czech Republic was formed.

For a great many people in Europe, Scots among them, their Nationalism has been expressed in fighting for their freedom or against the attacks of more powerful neighbours. The Polish people saw their territory increasingly annexed by Prussia, Austria and Russia during the Polish Partitions 1772, 1793 and 1795 when the Polish state disappeared completely. The Duchy of Warsaw, created by Napoleon, saw a part of that territory restored but it was not until 1918 that the Republic of Poland was reestablished, only for the territory to be occupied again by Germany and Russia in 1939. Despite fighting on the side of the Allies during WWII, the Polish people were again betrayed, placed under the control of the Soviet Union and not until the fall of Communism in the 1980s, were they finally independent. Thus English, German and Russian Nationalism has taken a different form from that of Scots, Czechs and Poles and while Scottish nationalism is condemned as narrow isolationism, despite the long history of Scottish involvement with Europe, British Nationalism is lauded and applauded as something noble, to be celebrated in extravaganzas such as the London Olympics. The annexation of almost half the world by Britain during the days of Empire, aided and abetted by Scots, is still seen as a power for good, as if it happened in a fit of absentmindedness.

I have never had any qualms about saying I am a Nationalist and until Scotland retains its independence, I will continue to be a Nationalist. My Nationalism is not expressed in the desire to annex anyone else's territory, it is concerned only to see the nation of Scotland restored as an independent nation state and extends no further than that. I will still be a Nationalist after that because I will continue to want to protect the interests of Scotland and the Scottish people, as we re-establish ourselves on the world stage, participating in those alliances which seek to protect and nurture the interests of other people  and nations throughout the world, at the same time, creating a decent society within our own borders. To my mind therefore, there is nothing to be ashamed of in being a Nationalist, it is simply an expression of the love I have for the country called Scotland and a deep desire to see the best outcome in all things, for the Scottish people. The question I often pose to those who condemn Scottish Nationalism is, "Why is that so wrong, when British Nationalism, with all of its imperialist connotations, is considered to be so right?" I have yet to be given the answer.

Scottish Nationalism has never been based on antipathy to other people and about the only concession that Unionists are prepared to make to the Nationalist movement in Scotland, is that it has never been based on ethnicity or any hint of racism. That is not to say there are no racists in Scotland, of course there are just as there are racists in every society, but racism has never been one of the pillars on which Scottish Nationalism has been built. There is an undoubted antipathy to England, which boils over occasionally to antipathy to English people, but that is a manifestation of the troubled history we share and the years of fighting against English aggression. It is also a reaction to the condescension with which England treats Scotland and the manner in which the case for Unionism is made. Our two peoples may share a history, just as we share a history with our European neighbours, but it is not the same history, any more than our two peoples have the same language, culture or social mores. The history, languages, mores and culture of the Scottish people are what make us Scots and differentiate us from our English neighbours. They are what make the Scottish nation. Much of that culture, including the languages, both Scots and Gaelic, the poetry of Burns, Ferguson and McLean are frequently treated with derision by the English establishment, despite the part played by Scots in the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries. These are the things which Scottish Nationalism seeks to defend and promote, in the face of continuing animosity from England. At no time has the Scottish elite sought to reciprocate and treat English language and attitudes with the same animosity and derision.

The political Left in both Scotland and England have tried for years to argue the case for the Union, in terms of the solidarity of the working classes in both countries. One English commentator recently argued that "A Scottish worker in a supermarket has more in common with an English worker in a supermarket, than with the landed gentry in Scotland." That argument has been made for generations and used to be couched in the following terms, "A Scottish miner/steel worker, has more in common with an English miner/steel worker etc. etc." Unfortunately for the Unionist Left, successive Westminster Governments closed the Scottish pits and steel works, leaving them to scrabble around for a similar comparison. The actions of successive Westminster Governments, in closing Scottish pits and steel works, as well as so many other Scottish companies and institutions, forced many on the Left in Scottish politics to re-examine their previous loyalties and come to the conclusion that Scottish independence offered more by way of opportunities to build the kind of country they preferred, than continuing loyalty to the Union with England.

Thus Dennis Canavan stated twice, at the Yes rally in Edinburgh, "I am not a Nationalist". He repeated it on the Sunday Politics programme the following day. Colin Fox has made the same claim, despite both serving on the Executive Committee of the Yes Campaign, and Tommy Sheridan, a recent convert to Scottish independence, like Jim Sillars, and so many recruits to the SNP over the years, cut his political teeth in the Labour Party in Scotland. I have to wonder if the Labour Party in Scotland had been prepared to accept Dennis Canavan as one of their candidates for the Scottish Parliament instead of de-selecting him, would he now be campaigning for independence? Canavan like others on the Left, claimed he was "an internationalist" as if that and Nationalism are mutually exclusive. It may simply be semantics but how do those who proclaim their internationalism so loudly, think there can be internationalism without nations or the pursuit of national interests? What is it about Scottish Nationalism that they find so unacceptable, given that they will acknowledge it is not based on ethnicity and has no aspirations to annex anyone else's territory?

I, in common with many other traditional Nationalists, want independence for its own sake because I believe Scots are different, are distinctive, have their own culture, are a nation and, that Nationalism is about dignity, self-respect and self-confidence. I see the function of Nationalists as persuading Scots to have a much stronger belief in their own self-worth. The country that may arise from the political deliberations and the referendum in 2014, may not be the kind of country I will want but that will not stop me seeking independence. Nicola Sturgeon has stated that she does not want an independent Scotland for "its own sake" as she has a notion of the kind of country she wants to see. That is slightly different from those who arrived at the point, where Scottish independence is their preference because, having failed to persuade Britain to produce the kind of country they want, they see an independent Scotland as the only alternative. When I sat on the Selection Committee of the SNP - the committee which interviewed prospective candidates for the candidates' list - I always asked the same question of those who proclaimed their Nationalism in terms of economics, "If you could be fairly certain that Scotland would be poorer if it became independent, would you still be a Nationalist. Would you still want independence?" The answers were frequently quite illuminating and several of the current SNP leadership are self-confessed economic Nationalists.

 Does that make economic change more important than independence? For many Scots, that is the case and, if the economic reforms and change they seek could be achieved by some other method or alliance, many of them would sacrifice independence. Those who were present in the SNP during the early debates on the EEC, now the EU, will remember the importance placed on the supposed economic benefits Scotland would accrue by joining the EEC. Sovereignty was not a consideration for the EEC supporters; they dismissed any suggestion that Scotland would lose control over so many areas of its economic and social legislation, concentrating on the assumed economic benefits arguments, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Today, those same people argue that they have changed their stance because the EU has changed and "when the facts change, they change their minds." It is true that the EU has changed over the years, as centralisation has been increased and the Euro launched; but those changes were planned over 50 years ago and the plans have not changed. Those of us who placed more importance on the loss of sovereignty or independence, rather than assumed economic benefits, have unfortunately had to watch our predictions about the EU come true as the whole EU policy of the SNP has unraveled.

People will support the idea of Scottish independence for different reasons, that  much has been made clear by successive polls. Not everyone who claims to support independence just now, can be relied upon to support it if their reason for supporting it can be achieved in other ways or circumstances change. The most recent poll suggests that 52% of Scots would vote for independence if there was a serious prospect of the Con/Lib Coalition being re-elected. How many of them would be left if they thought Labour would be elected? Others have said that as little as £500 per annum would be enough to get them to change their minds. The SNP has just dropped its long-standing opposition to NATO membership because an opinion poll claims that 72% of Scots are in favour of NATO membership. What happens if their opinion changes or NATO becomes involved in another illegal war? Are we seriously being asked to believe that NATO will pack up Trident and vacate the Clyde?

Where the Unionists are absolutely correct is when they say that Independence is not just for Christmas and Nationalists would not be so willing to say "How High?" every time some focus group or opinion poll cries "Jump", if support for independence was based on something much more solid and principled than whether or not the Tories are re-elected in England. The Yes Campaign has much to do in the next few months and arguing from a point of principle might be a good place to start.


Sunday, 14 October 2012

England Will Expect - Better Believe It

Johann Lamont has been a surprise to more than a few political commentators since her elevation to the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party. She has performed better than expected in the Scottish Parliament and has been praised for her courage in raising the issue of universal benefits. Where she has provided absolutely no surprises is in her determination to save the Union. Not only has she shown- as if there was ever any doubt-that Labour in Scotland will dismantle the welfare state in Scotland, allying itself with the Tories, but they will even adopt the old Tory tactic of promising a "better tomorrow" if Scots will only vote to remain a dependency of England. Johann Lamont has set up "A Commission" which, it is claimed, will report  the Labour Party's preferences and policy for increased Devolution, or Devolution Plus, in time for Scots to make a choice between that and independence before they vote in the referendum in 2014.

The first and most important point, of which Scots should be made aware from the outset, is that it will not matter a toss what the Labour Party in Scotland proposes. Nothing will be decided about any change in the constitution, until the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland have their say. Any change in the degree of devolution which will be granted to the Scottish people, will be a question for the whole of the United Kingdom. If it is even hinted that whatever the Labour Party proposes, is likely to become law, it must be knocked on the head because no changes in the constitution, other than Scottish independence, can be decided by the Scots on their own. We need not only the agreement but the permission, of the rest of the UK and the Westminster Parliament, to increase the powers of the devolution settlement. It should also be remembered there will be Westminster elections in 2016, therefore we have no idea which party will form the government or what issues will dominate their priorities. I think it is safe to assume that increasing the powers of the Scottish (and Welsh & Northern Irish parliaments) will not be one of them. We need no one's permission to be independent. The act of transferring sovereignty from the parliament of the UK to the parliament of an independent Scotland, will be the subject of discussion, but only in the sense of timescale or practicalities, never the decision itself. That is for Scots and Scots alone, to decide.

What kind of increased powers are Labour likely to suggest and, more importantly, what would be acceptable to the Westminster Parliament? Advocates of Devo-Plus have been unclear about the changes they would propose, beyond saying that power over all taxation and welfare payments would be a must. The SNP's Fiscal Autonomy would have met the demand for control of taxation, including the level of corporation tax applied in Scotland and complete control of the oil revenues. The Calman Commission decided that a form of half-way house would satisfy the demands for more powers in Scotland and suggested that Scotland should be made responsible for raising up to 35% of the Scottish budget, as opposed to the 15% for which it currently has responsibility, but the SNP quite rightly, pointed out that the measures did not go nearly far enough. When two bodies start from entirely opposite ends of the argument, it is hardly likely that any kind of half-way house is going to satisfy those whose aim is to wrest total control from the centre. Calman believed that the division of powers between Scotland and Westminster were "broadly right" therefore was never likely to offer anything that would undermine the status quo.

Alistair Darling, who heads up the No Campaign, has consistently argued that the SNP decision to keep the pound sterling after independence and to have the Bank of England as the lender of last resort, would mean that an "independent" Scotland would have little or no control over its economy. He points to the major crisis currently facing the Euro-zone and points to the fact that the single currency cannot work without centralised control over the tax and spending powers of the member states, so that monetary and fiscal policy can be made to complement each other, rather than be allowed to drift in opposite directions, as has been the case since the launch of the single currency. He argues that the Bank of England would require that kind of control over Scottish taxation, in order to avoid the kind of problems which have taken place in the Euro-zone. I agree with that criticism, which is why I have just as consistently argued in favour of a Scottish currency and a Scottish central bank but John Swinney, initially agreed that a Scottish Treasury would be prepared to offer the Bank of England assurances that Scotland would run a fiscal policy which would be acceptable to the Bank, thereby acknowledging Darling's criticisms as valid. More recently, Alex Salmond informed an American audience that he saw no reason for a fiscal stability pact with the rest of the UK, which directly contradicts Swinney and leaves Scots in a position where they have no idea what the SNP now offers.

One of the strongest arguments the SNP made, in its demands for Fiscal Autonomy, was that Scotland could then set its own corporation tax rates and like Eire, act as a magnet for inward investment. There are serious disadvantages with that policy, not least of which is the revenue gap that would have to be filled if large companies were to be attracted to Scotland on the basis of low corporation tax. It has been argued that the total revenue take would increase as a consequence of increased overall activity, the same claim that is made for a flat rate tax system, but not all members of the SNP agreed, with one of the fiercest crtics of such a system being the late Stephen Maxwell. The notion of Scotland, inside the Union but with Fiscal Autonomy, being allowed to operate such a tax regime, is quite risible for the very obvious reason that other areas of England which would be seriously disadvantaged, would never agree. Swinney's statement to the Bank of England, was a recognition of this, if Scotland continues with sterling as its currency but Salmond's latest comments have now thrown the whole debate wide open again. Unfortunately, the advocates of Devo-Plus have also relied heavily on the argument that Scotland should be given more control over taxation and oil revenues, at a time when the example of the crisis in the Euro-zone is encouraging greater fiscal centralisation.

Calman's proposals were agreed by all of the Unionist parties and stopped well short of Fiscal Autonomy. Without even mentioning the term, Darling has already made the case against it by pointing to the debacle in the Euro-zone and arguing that the Bank of England would not allow that level of fiscal freedom to operate inside the UK. Having had a ceiling placed on the degree of control that would be acceptable to the politicians at Westminster, Johann Lamont has had her limits set for her before her Commission has had its first meeting. No matter how it will be dressed up, whatever proposals are made by the Commission, will fall well short of what is looked for by those who advocate Devo-Plus, if by that is meant control over taxation. Whether or not Lamont is sincere in her efforts to meet the demands for greater powers in Scotland, she will be hard pushed to persuade the electorate that her Commission is anything other than a cynical attempt to undermine a Yes vote at the referendum. She has promised the proposals will be before the Scottish electorate in time for them to consider them before having to make a decision on the referendum, but anyone with even a passing interest in politics in Scotland, will be in little doubt that whatever is offered will fall well short of offering Scots any meaningful increase in control over their own affairs.

As there is to be no second question on the ballot paper, the Scots have a very straightforward choice. They can choose to be independent with all that that means in terms of opportunity to build the kind of country we want, cementing the kind of international relationships we want, promoting the kind of society we favour with full control over our many resources. They can have that or the Union, a Union dominated by the English electorate for no other reason than that there are more of them. It will be a Union that will continue to be defined by their priorities because that is the kind of Union they prefer. Scots have shown it is not the kind of society which satisfies our priorities but unless we fall in line, we are ridiculed and parodied as subsidy junkies, content to live off English largesse. A No vote in the referendum will see those priorities ignored and set aside because it will be what England expects. Anyone who thinks that will not be the case, should ask Johann Lamont and Scottish Labour.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Politics And Opportunity Cost

I have spent a life time arguing for the end of the Treaty of Union of 1707, for the return of sovereignty to the Scottish people; in short, for Scottish independence. Like the vast majority of Scottish Nationalists of my generation and those who came before, there were always a number of different reasons for our desire to see Scotland sever the Union with England but economics was never the main or the most important factor. We could always argue the economic case if required to do so but generally, it would be in response to economic questions which had been raised by those of our fellow Scots, who were either luke-warm to the idea of independence or openly hostile. Circumstances dictated the type and substance of the political debates of that era, that is, prior to the discovery of oil in the Scottish sector of the North Sea. The Nationalist case would always include an element of economic argument, inevitable in any discussion about the future of any country, but our desire for independence was never predicated on whether or not we would be economically better or worse off. In fact, I know of no other independence movement anywhere else in the world, where the economic argument has played such a prominent part.

Unfortunately the SNP was forced/persuaded to make the economic case occupy centre stage, after the discovery of oil, and no other issue has been the subject of so much inaccurate analysis, propaganda, half-truths and outright misinformation and lies. We are hardly into the campaign for the vote on the referendum on independence, to be held in 2014, but hardly a day goes by without some prominent politician on either side of the debate, issuing some statement either in favour or in opposition to independence, which is quite clearly a collection of half-truths or out and out lies. Assertions are trotted out without even a modicum of evidence, some of which would stretch the credulity of a ten-year-old. Both sides are equally guilty and Scots are being forced to wonder if the speaker actually understands what they have just said. Given the level of intelligence of some of the people involved, intelligence which has been tested in other ways and in other fields, it is difficult not to conclude that the speaker is bound to understand what has just been said. As some of the statements are so obviously untrue or, are shown very quickly to be untrue, the only other conclusion we are forced to come to is that both sides are setting out to deliberately mislead.

One of the very first lessons for anyone who takes economics as a school subject, is the relationship between resources and scarcity, the allocation of resources and the concept of opportunity cost. Even the most befuddled drunk, digging deep into his pockets in the hope of finding enough change for one last pint, knows that the same pound can't be spent twice on different drinks. He can have either another pint or...? Every housewife, every parent, soon learns that income can go only so far and the opportunity cost of new school uniforms can be the school trip perhaps, or some item of household equipment. Everyone learns very quickly that the opportunity cost of spending time on one activity, is the time that might have been spent on another activity. In other words, it is no more than common sense that resources, of whatever kind, are limited and many of them have alternative uses.

Johann Lamont has been both lauded and derided in equal measure, for her speech calling for the end of universal benefits. Her call for a re-examination of the Scottish government's priorities and her reference to the "something for nothing society" was bad politics and she provided an easy target for Nicola Sturgeon. It was not even good economics because her assumption was that Scotland could not afford the benefits which are currently on offer. The only time such an assertion would be true, would be if Scotland did not have the resources to pay for the benefits in absolute terms, nor the ability to borrow in order to pay for the benefits. Neither situation is true. A nation's willingness to allocate resources in such a manner that those least able to look after themselves, the very young, the old and weak, the ill, the disadvantaged, is what defines the nature of that nation. If Scots choose to allocate its resources so that the least able in our society are cared for, that is no one's business other than our own. Scots have been accused of trying to provide Scandinavian benefits on the back of American taxation.

When Nicola Sturgeon asked Labour MSPs to raise their hands if they wanted to remove free bus travel or free prescriptions, she was touching a chord in those in the Labour ranks who could still remember when the Labour Party actually believed in such things. When free prescriptions were introduced in Scotland, Jackie Baillie, Labour's then health spokesperson supported the measure, which had been in place in Wales since 2007 and was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2010. England is therefore out of step with the rest of the UK & Northern Ireland and they would be better to address their own situation, rather than spend time worrying about what the rest of the UK does. There is no doubt that universal benefits, both in economic and political terms,  needs to be addressed. When free care was introduced in 2003-04 it cost £86 million and has risen to £108 million in 2010-11. Free prescriptions cost £57 million, home care cost £133 million in 2003-04 and £342 million in 2010-11. Free travel cost £173 million in 2006-07 and £199 million in 2010-11 but is estimated to rise to £537 million by 2025. That last figure is being used to frighten the horses and is based on assumed annual increases of 6% every year until 2025, therefore may never happen. The travel system also costs £42 million to administer but that figure could be reduced if an alternative system is introduced.

The English media and Unionists in Scotland - in other words the Tory, Labour and Lib/Dem political parties and their supporters - far too readily assume Scotland is the most naturally impoverished part of the UK and, if it were not for the largesse emanating from England, we could not possibly enjoy the standard of living we do. Ruth Davidson is only the most recent Tory politician to produce figures to show how much Scots depend on English subsidies. The fact she is talking tosh, has been shown to be talking tosh, admitted by even her own party members, will be largely ignored by the Unionist press as they move to the next smear. Davidson should be made to either justify her claims or apologise but I expect neither to happen. The latest figures for taxation in Scotland, show that Scotland produces an excess of £2.7 billion per annum over the amount spent by government, in Scotland or on behalf of Scotland. The current total spend on the universal benefits that Lamont et al claim we cannot afford is £742 million therefore it is hardly rocket science to determine that we can afford the benefits in terms of simple arithmetic. That situation could be improved more in an independent Scotland if we decide to cut back on defence spending and tailor our defence budget to meet our ambitions.

The problem that Unionists like Johann Lamont have is that the Union means more to them than whether or not Scotland can afford the benefits we choose to give. The argument that it is ludicrous that millionaires are entitled to free care or free travel, totally ignores the reality that they would be hard pushed to find a millionaire who has a bus pass or who would choose to spend their last days in a care home where they would be drawing their free personal care. The Union is at stake here and just as the Euro fanatics will force the Greeks, Spaniards, Irish and Portuguese to suffer any level of austerity in order to save the European dream, so Unionists in Scotland will use every spurious economic and political argument to preserve the Union with England and the rest of the UK. None of the economic arguments that Davidson and Lamont use, take any account of the potential of an independent Scotland with control, complete control, of its own resources. A look at what Norway has done with its oil should tell every Scot just how much they have missed because they chose to believe the lies told by successive UK governments. Is there any reason to believe their successors are telling the truth now? The McCrone Report should be compulsory reading for every Scot because they would then see that the gulf between what UK Governments told them and the reality of the resources they could have had, would have made an independent Scotland one of the richest in the world.

So, the argument is about politics, it is not about economics. We could wipe the slate clean and abolish taxation completely, thereby absolving government of any responsibility for providing any kind of service to the nation. That is a ludicrous argument but when politicians start to unravel the state, we are dealing with matters of degree, not of principle. The Coalition has already cut £billions from the public sector, plan to cut another £10 billion and Ed Balls refuses to commit the Labour Party to reverse them. It is accepted that one of the first duties of government is to protect its population, therefore defence of the realm is a must and has to be paid for, and although there is no comparison with the level of UK involvement in world affairs now and in the days of empire, our presence in Afghanistan is testimony to government ambitions that greatly outstrip our resources. Thatcher and her colleagues decided that any kind of state involvement was anathema and privatised just about everything in sight. Are the railways being run either more cheaply or more efficiently now, than when it was British Rail? Would the politicians who get so exercised about millionaires being entitled to free care or free prescriptions, be willing to have a top rate of tax of 50% or 55% so that those self-same millionaires would pay through the tax system? Of course, we would have to ensure that they actually paid the tax and could not take advantage of the various advoidance schemes which have been allowed to proliferate, for the benefit of BBC employees and footballers. How many of them would have the courage to suggest it or would the threat of all the millionaires threatening to flee the country be too much for them?

No matter what choices are made, there will be an opportunity cost. What is important is the nature of the choice AND the opportunity cost. Hands up those (few?) Labour MSPs who would be quite happy if the opportunity cost of providing universal benefits was Trident and the war in Afghanistan?