Re-ordering the United Kingdom

Following the Scottish Independence Referendum it is generally agreed that how we govern the United Kingdom needs to be overhauled and dragged into the 21st century.

David Cameron thinks that it can all be stitched up neatly by a Cabinet committee.  However it only takes about two seconds of thought to understand that his proposal for “English votes on English Laws” (EVEL) is nothing but a piece of low politics, designed to make it difficult if not impossible for the Labour party to form an effective government.

As Vernon Bogador (Professor of Government at King’s College London) says:

But the British constitution is not the private property of the Conservative party or, for that matter, the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats. A constitutional settlement, if it is to be lasting, needs the support of all parties, and endorsement by the people as a whole after measured debate. It is hardly suited to the hurly-burly of the hustings.

His article on the subject essentially demolishes Cameron’s plans.

Ed Milliband and the Labour party propose a constitutional convention, which if it isn’t used as an excuse to do nothing, is the way forward. With a bit of luck we might even come up with a proper constitution; i.e. a written one, at the end of it

UKIP, I think, wants to re-build Hadrian’s wall. I can’t find any official Liberal Democrat policy, the only thing I can find is this on the Liberal Democrat Voice blog (not an official outlet) which says “Err… not sure…let’s hold our horses”

Here are my ideas on what we need to do about re-ordering the way we govern ourselves. The first draft of my submission to the constitutional convention if you like.

Federal System

In my opinion we need to move to a federal system of government. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already have their own devolved assemblies. Some have proposed that England should have its own assembly as well. England’s population is around fifty million. It is too large and too London-centric to have an effective devolved government covering the whole of the country. In my opinion power needs to be handed down to smaller areas to provide an effective local devolution  I would suggest looking at how the German Länder system works, or, if we want to stick to the Anglo-Saxon world the American, Canadian or Australian systems would be suitable starting points.

9RegionsColourSome have proposed that power be devolved to the cities, Each of the major cities should have its own assembly, possibly modelled on the London assembly complete with elected mayor. The problem with this is that it leaves those parts of the country that aren’t major cities with a bit of a democratic deficit. Others, have proposed devolving greater powers to the counties and unitary authorities. I feel that they are too small to wield  power effectively.

My proposal is this:
The nine regions of England, the North East, North West, Yorkshire and Humberside, East Midlands, West Midlands, East Anglia, London, The South East and the South West, have very roughly similar populations. They should each be given their own regional assembly with powers at least equal to those of the Welsh assembly. They would be funded initially according to the Barnet formula. The members would be elected by proportional representation. I would think that each regional assembly would have between 50 and 80 members.

The Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Assemblies would obviously continue as they are.

The North East rejected a regional assembly in 2004 and some people argue that this shows that there is no desire for regional devolution in England. However what was on offer in 2004 was not devolution but a regional talking shop. As the Newcastle Journal says in an editorial:

The North East rejected the creation of a new regional assembly in a referendum in 2004.

What was on offer then was NOT devolved powers, but a talking shop with no authority.

Devolution is not about creating a new class of politician. It’s about bringing powers and control over funding to the region – so that we can set our own priorities for training, education, health services and more, and carry out vital infrastructure projects without going cap in hand to Whitehall.

There needs to be a debate about who would exercise these powers, but there is already a tier of local government involving councils working together in a combined authority.

Our MPs must also play a role – and their voices must be heard at Westminster, too.

But let’s be loud and clear about one thing, so that the message reaches those in the Westminster bubble. The North East did not reject devolved powers in the assembly vote. The powers were never there.

I think that there is an appetite for genuine devolution in the regions of England.

Reduced size House of Commons

With Regional Assemblies in place doing most of the spade work of governing I would question whether we still need a House of Commons of six-hundred plus members. I think that it could be reduced to around two-hundred and fifty, elected by some form of proportional representation.

Its remit would be to consider the aspects of policy that would remain at national (federal) level. Aspects such as foreign policy, defence and overall fiscal policy. It would also be responsible for aspects of policy devolved to regional level, that need national co-ordination, for example transport.

Abolish the House of Lords

The House of Lords obviously has to go. It needs to be replaced by an elected assembly which I propose should be known as The Senate. The Senate would be elected from the regions, with each region supplying the same number of Senators. I would suggest six per region giving a total of 72. Again they would be elected by proportional representation, probably on a region wide basis. The Senate would be mainly a revising chamber. It would have the power to amend legislation and send it back to the Other House 1 for further consideration, but would not have the power to block legislation. It could also propose legislation, but such legislation would have to be passed by the Other House

Proportional Representation

All members of all the various assemblies would be elected by a system of proportional representation . My preferred system  is the Single Transferable Vote but we can argue about the details later.

Reduce the Voting Age to 16

When the SNP decided to lower the voting age to sixteen for the referendum I was sceptical. My thinking was that they hoped to tap into naïve patriotism and that most 16 to 18 year olds would vote yes. This did not prove to be the case. As the campaign went on it became obvious that they were listening to and participating in the discussion on both sides before making their own minds up.

I now think that the franchise should be extended to sixteen year olds in all elections.

The way forward:

If you agree with what I have said here, Unlock Democracy have an E-petition calling for a UK Constitutional Convention.  2014_Sept_Constitution_Convention_Petition_FB_Square I would ask you to think about signing.

1.I haven’t, as yet,thought of a name for what is currently known as The House of Commons

Princesses and Engineers

Having just shared a post on why Britain needs more women engineers on Facebook I came across this post by Libby-Anne which may just, at least in part get to the root of the problem.

The post on why Britain needs more women engineers says that we need more engineers and if more women could be encouraged to join the profession it would be easier to meet the target.

Industry estimates suggest Britain will need 87,000 graduate-level engineers every year between now and 2020, but only 46,000 young people are likely to be awarded degrees in engineering annually.

There is also likely to be a gap between the number of young people acquiring vocational engineering qualifications and employers’ demand for technicians.

These gaps would be much smaller if more young women opted for careers in engineering. The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineering professionals in Europe.

Later on it tries to analyse why women are not attracted to what is a well paid profession.

However, our report also shows that choices made at the age of 16 are based on attitudes and perceptions about engineering that have been formed over many years. Engineering is seen as a career for ‘brainy boys’. Intervention at the age of 16 is likely to be too late.

The key to getting more women into engineering is to make it an attractive option for girls from an early age. But at present, teachers, careers guidance, work experience and families are not doing enough to counter the view that engineering is for men, not women, and in some cases they are guilty of perpetuating it.

Which leads me to Libby-Anne’s post which she titles “What’s Your Favorite Princess?”.

She is writing from an American perspective but I don’t think that social attitudes are that different here in the UK. I don’t think that her husbands colleague who’s first question to her daughter is “What’s your favourite princess?” is sexist, just trapped by what we think of as gender norms.

She says rightly:

Yes, not every five-year-old has a favorite princess. I know, right? What a novelty! Sally does enjoy princesses, but she has other things on her mind at the moment. Frustrated but trying not to show it, I explained that Sally is more into science. Sally became immediately excited, and spent the next few minutes explaining some of her favorite scientific concepts, using the chalkboard to illustrate. Sean’s colleague quickly lost interest and drifted away before he finished.

As she is leaving she says to her husband’s colleague who is working in a STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) field:

“You know, one of the reasons we see a gender disparity in the maths and sciences is that people assume girls will fit into a preconceived stereotype,” I told him. “And princesses are part of that.”

And that is one of the roots of why Britain can’t recruit enough women engineers

Hermione was the brightest of the three wasn’t she?

Emma Watson delivered an excellent talk at the U.N. the other day. I hope that Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Ron (Rupert Grint) will support her.

I advise you not to read the comments if you watch this on you tube, They only go to prove how correct she is in what she says.

Songs I Love: Billy Bragg – Both Sides the Tweed

This is Billy Bragg’s version of a song first recorded by Dick Gaughan back in 1979 after the defeat of the first Scottish Devolution Referendum. The original song was either written or collected by James Hogg (aka The Ettrick Shepherd) and published in The Jacobite Relics of Scotland as Song LXXV (page 126).  It appears to date back to or recall the 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England.

What Dick Gaughan has done is alter the lyrics to give them a more contemporary Scottish Republican feel and put his own tune to the song. However even if he is singing the “original” 1 tune to a song it often feels as if he has put his own tune to it so that is not really a surprise. His lyrics and interpretation of what the song is about can be found here.

The song can be sung as a lament/rant against those who, as was felt then, sold Scotland’s freedom to clear their debts from the Darien Scheme. But it is also be a plea for tolerance and understanding between peoples

Let friendship and honour unite And flourish on both sides the Tweed.

There is a lot of history and emotion in this song. And although I think that Billy Bragg and Dick Gaughan were on the wrong side of the Referendum debate they are both on the correct side when it comes to the debate about humanity.

This is a version by Dick Gaughan from 1989; The fiddler is Aly Bain, the Keyboard player is Phil Cunningham

1. Most traditional folk songs don’t really have an *original* tune as the tune has  usually been lost or become so altered by passing the song from one singer to another that the original composer, if there was one, would not recognise their song. Many  traditional songs are composites of other songs, to a certain extent like Both Sides the Tweed. Some songs, however do have an accepted tune that they are normally sung to.

Now that the Referendum is Over

The Scottish Independence Referendum is over, the results declared, and I feel relieved as much as happy that the result went the way that I hoped. A letter in today’s Guardian sort of expresses what I feel;

When the no vote won, it felt like an enormous relief. I can still feel Scottish, then, perhaps even more so since not excluded. I can be as Scottish as I choose, whatever that means. Thank goodness. We are all world citizens. We might as well try to get along.

I know that there are a lot of disappointed people in Scotland today. I hope you believe me when I say that can understand your pain. When you put time, effort, money, passion and belief into something and it doesn’t work out the way you had hoped, it hurts.

The “Yes” campaign brought a new passion, a new style and a new level of engagement to politics in Scotland. At least part of this was due to the fact that an existential question had to be answered, and that for once every vote counted. I hope that the level of passion and engagement will continue when politics goes back to ‘normal’ representational politics , where the questions are not so easily framed and the answers are less clear-cut. I also hope that we can tap into that passion south of the border. I will expand on that in another post.

 Why did “Yes” lose

There have been acres of newsprint and terabytes of blog postings already on this subject so I think I should add my bawbee’s worth to them.

Failure to answer big questions

I feel the main reason was an unwillingness or inability to answer some fundamental questions.

The big question that the “Yes” campaign totally failed to answer was the currency question. Their answer was “we will continue to use the Pound Sterling”. When it was pointed out that this was neither practically nor politically possible, they blustered and basically said ‘we’ll sort it out later’.

Practically it wouldn’t work, because as the Euro has proven, currency union without political and fiscal union at a federal level doesn’t’ work. Politically it wouldn’t work because all three main UK parties had said they wouldn’t allow it. The reason they wouldn’t allow it was because they were worried about an independent Scotland building a deficit of Greek proportions and the Bank of England being left as lender of the last resort. Even if both those problems could have been overcome, there would still have been the problem of Scotland’s interest rates and monetary policy being set in London.

The funding of the Scottish Exchequer was also never properly addressed, other than to say that oil revenues would cover any gap.

It became every thing to everyone

I felt that one of problems with the yes campaign was that it presented an independent Scotland as a blank canvas. You could paint any picture you wanted onto it. This is obviously an attractive notion, and it seduced many people, notably singer/activist Billy Bragg. Obviously had “Yes” won the day a there would have been lot of disappointed people a few weeks down the route to independence. The redistributive Social Democracy being promoted by Common Weal is obviously incompatible with the small state, tax-cutting, Tiger economy that those on the Libertarian end of Nationalism were hoping for. Equally the petro-chemical fuelled economy implied by much of the Scottish Nationalist Party’s economic predictions was at complete odds with the Scottish Green Party’s vision of a Scotland fuelled by renewable energy.

Alex Salmond

Many people who I interacted with on Social Media, normally after I had raised a question about something that Alex Salmond had said, told me that the referendum was not about the SNP. I will admit that there were other strands within the “Yes” campaign but Salmond set the overall tone. While some people loved him, a lot more, including myself were completely turned off by an ego the size of Ben Nevis and the arrogance that went with it. His answer to any criticism of his policies was” I’m right, you’re wrong”.

Where do we go from here

Scotland has said yes to continuing as part of the United Kingdom, but it is a qualified endorsement. The debate has shown that our current constitutional arrangements are no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century. We need to come up with a new settlement for the whole of the country, and not something stitched up by Westminster. We can see this happening already. David Cameron makes his proposals not so much because he thinks they are right for the United Kingdom but because he thinks that they will put The Labour Party in a difficult position and therefore be good for the conservatives.

This cannot be about narrow party advantage. We need a sound and lasting settlement made in a way that allows everyone their say in how it is reached.

Unlock Democracy have an E-petition calling for just this 2014_Sept_Constitution_Convention_Petition_FB_Squarewhich I would ask you to think about signing.

It is probably time to reconsider (again) how we elect our representatives. The Single Transferable Vote is an idea whose time has come.

As well as this I would like to see politics south of the Tweed develop some of the passion and thinking that people like Common Weal have brought to the Scottish Independence debate.

A final aside:

There was an important vote on the 18th that did go in favour of those voting “Yes”. Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews finally dragged itself out of the early neolithic and into the 21st century by voting to allow women members.

Final Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum

no thanks

I hope everyone planning to Vote “Yes” on Thursday understands that this is not like voting in a General Election. In an election whether it is a General Election or an election for the Parish Council if we (collectively) vote the “wrong” party in we have to grit our teeth, grin and bear it until we get a chance to correct the mistake next time. On Thursday a “Yes” vote is permanent. When the Yes campaign’s Panglossian promises prove impossible to implement it will be too late to change your mind.

The divorce will be messy; It’s not going to be easy dividing up the CD collection. It will take a lot longer than the 18 months that the “Yes” campaign seems to think it will take. It is likely to get acrimonious, especially if, as seems possible though I’ll do as much as I can to make sure it doesn’t happen, UKIP have some leverage after the 2015 election.

You can’t come greetin’ back when you find that what the fancy man promised turns out to be a mixture of fantasy and lies. Oh and it seems that the rich uncle you hoped might pay for all this is thinking about keeping his money to himself. Yes Shetland may just take its oil and go its own way

An independent Scotland even without “the Oil” will probably work, lots of smaller and poorer countries than Scotland work, at least after a fashion. Aditya Chakrabortty in the Guardian says this;

The fundamental point, though, is this: neither picture captures the reality. Look at Scotland’s economic profile, and it’s clear that independence would be viable. But count up the building blocks that would form the basis of a new economy, and it looks sadly unlikely that an independent Scotland would be much of an alternative to the Old Corruption south of the border.

He concludes that economically Scotland will end up looking more like Ireland than anything else. Now Ireland works, but it is a long way from the promised fairer Scandinavian Social Democratic paradise.

We live in a democracy, and we have to accept the result even if it is 50% +1 vote.

Having said that we live in a democracy, roughly 10% of Scots living in the UK have been deliberately deprived of a say in the outcome of the referendum. Make no mistake how you vote on the 18th will have a profound effect on the lives of Scots who have chosen to live in, or in many cases had to move to, another part of their country. Giving us a vote on the outcome would help a lot of us accept the result, either way, more readily. But I don’t have a vote so all I can do is express my feelings on my blog and hope that it sways one or two of you.
Patrick McGhee says;

Scotland has waited 300 years for a chance to vote for its own independence. It’s a decision of historic proportions. The waiting feels interminable and unbearable.

But not all Scots will get a say. About 800,000 Scots live in England but will not be able to vote in the Scottish referendum. That’s about the same as the population of Glasgow and Aberdeen combined. That is to say, people born in Scotland but who have relocated to England for work, family or study reasons, either temporarily, permanently or indefinitely. People who are essentially as Scottish as those born north of the border and who currently live there.

People like me.

It is your vote, I can’t tell you how to cast it, but I am asking you to vote “No”, because I genuinely believe that both Scotland and the other parts of the United Kingdom will be better and stronger if we stay together. Here’s Gordon Brown putting the case much more eloquently than I can;

If you want to read the articles I quote from in full click on the links at the beginning of the quotes.

A View of the Scottish Independence Debate from a Scotsman in England

I was born in the Scottish Borders just over 59 years ago. I have lived in South London for the last 25. Before that I lived in the Solomon Islands for about 3 years and before that I was at sea for about 15 years. During the time I was at sea I lived in Hawick when I was at home. During the time that I lived in Hawick, I was more or less the only member of my High School class who still lived there. Everyone else had gone off to College or University and had not come back. I could continue to live in Hawick because I earned my living elsewhere. I doubt that the situation has altered much since then and if independence will change it I would like to know how.

The first thing that bothers me about the independence debate is that I will have no say in its outcome. The result of the referendum will have a profound and lasting effect on my identity. I am someone who sees himself as Scottish and British (which way round usually depends on the sporting contest that I am watching) and a Borderer and a Londoner1. Following a “Yes” vote on the 18th of September, what will I be? I will still be living in England, but I am definitely not English. Can I still be Scottish? And what becomes of the British part of me?

I had originally given this post the working title “An Expatriate View of the Scottish Independence Debate”. I changed it because I am not an expatriate. I was an expatriate when I lived and worked in the Solomon Islands. I moved to a different part of my country because I fell in love with and then married a woman who lived in London. I was in the Merchant Navy at the time, so where I lived didn’t matter. It was no different to moving to Edinburgh or Inverness.

I understand to a certain extent why I don’t have a vote in the referendum; although I don’t think that it would have been too impossible to allow Scots living in the UK to register to vote on proof of birth.

I am not in favour of an independent Scotland. I think that the past 307 years do actually prove that we are “Better Together”. One hundred years ago when my grandfathers signed up to fight in World War One they joined the British Army. Thirty seven years later, when my father signed up to help defeat Nazism he didn’t join the Scottish Navy he joined the Royal Navy. We fought and defeated Fascism as the United Kingdom. We forged the Welfare State and the National Health Service as the United Kingdom. We celebrated our shared history at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. When Sir Chris Hoy and Andy Murray won their gold medals it wasn’t just Scots who celebrated. Scotland’s story is inextricably linked to the story of the rest of the British Isles.

It is probably worth remembering that the Union came about because Scotland had bankrupted itself on a grandiose ill thought out national ego enhancing scheme (the sort of thing that I am sure Mr Salmond would never contemplate) Over the next three-hundred years we built a new nation that was and is stronger than the separate parts.

A few random thoughts

Tax and Oil

The Yes campaign, or parts of it at least, appears to promise a Social Democratic paradise with Scandinavian levels of social provision and American levels of taxation. It is interesting to note that the only concrete tax proposal they have come up with is a proposal to cut Corporation Tax, presumably Amazon and Starbucks will declare their profits in Scotland rather than the counties they were earned in. Of course the oil, or possibly whisky will supposedly pay for all this.

I don’t know where Brian McNeill stands on independence, probably for it, but his song “No Gods and Precious few Heroes” could have been written about the Alex Salmond and the Yes campaign;

He’ll lead us to the Promised Land with laughter in his eye
We’ll all live on the oil and the whisky by and by
Free heavy beer! Pie suppers in the sky! -
Will we never have the sense to learn?

The reliance on oil revenue to balance the budget strikes me as similar to my ideas about what I could do with my first pay check after I had completed my apprenticeship. I seemed like an almost unlimited amount of money, but I discovered pretty soon that it didn’t go as far as I had hoped.
It also seems slightly incongruous to me that the Scottish Green Party signed up to a policy that relies on an increase in greenhouse gasses to fund it.

I am a Social Democrat and I want to see a more just country but I don’t see the plans being laid out by Tommy Sheridan and his ilk as a practical way forward, and besides what’s wrong with fighting for social democracy in the United Kingdom

Currency Union

Of course an Independent Scotland could keep the pound, the only problem being that a currency union without political and fiscal union doesn’t really work. The Euro doesn’t work very well especially for countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal. This is because without political union and unified fiscal policy it is not possible to make the transfers of money that help stabilise the weaker parts. It works for the largest economy – Germany – which gets to dictate the terms and conditions for the others. The dollar does work well because the United States of America is a political union with a unified fiscal policy at Federal level.

When Czechoslovakia separated both the Czech Republic and Slovakia thought that they could continue to use the Koruna in a currency union, it took about a week for them to discover that it wouldn’t work and that they would have to separate the currency.

The real reason behind the Bank of England’ reluctance to allow a currency union ( and the three main UK political parties) is a fear that an Independent Scotland will end up in similar deficit situation (see my previous point), to say Greece or Portugal, with them rather than the European Central Bank as lender of last resort.

Railways

One other minor point, a fair bit been made of Scottish taxpayers funding London’s Crossrail project, however as a London Taxpayer I am funding the Border Rail project. I am not saying that the Border Rail project should not happen, it would probably have been better if the Waverly Line had never been closed in the first place, but if you calculate the cost at about £300 million and consider the number of people who will benefit from it, about 100,000 if I am being generous 40,000 is probably more realistic that comes to about £3000 per person (I’m being generous) Crossrail at a cost of about £15 billion will benefit about 10 million people a cost of £1500 per person. Also I am funding free prescriptions, free care for the elderly, free higher education, all of which I think government should be funding by the way, but I don’t get the benefit of any of it.

My summary

When it comes down to it I am a Borderer and true people of the borders know that there is no difference between them and the people on the other side of the line drawn on the map.
Everyone has roots somewhere, mine are in the Borders, but I am also Scottish, British, and a Londoner, but above all I am a Citizen of Earth.

I believe we are Better Together and although I don’t have a vote on the 18th I hope that enough of you who do will agree with me and vote to keep the Union.

1 The definition of a true Londoner is someone who lives there but wasn’t born there.

This post was produced while listening to the Cheviot Ranters a band from Northumberland who were popular on both sides of the border.