Friday, 23 January 2009

The myth of munificence

A little bugbear of mine....

One of the many parables that does the rounds with regards to Scotland and its economy is the broad, unquestioning acceptance that Scotland has an unduly bloated public sector. Or, more precisely, that a disproportionate number of Scots (sometimes this extends to an outright "majority") work for the state in some capacity or other.

It is perhaps worth examining these beliefs to see how they stack up in reality. Fortunately, the Scottish Government, perhaps sensitive to the claims noted above, publish a quarterly tracker of the number of Scots employed in the public sector, expressed as a percentage of the overall working population.

The latest figures relate to Q3 of 2008 and were published just before Christmas. Quoting directly from the release and emphasising the important statistic (in bold):

  • In quarter 3 (Q3) 2008, there were 575,700 people employed in the public sector which is an increase of 47,500 (9.0 per cent) since 1999 and an increase of 300 (0.04 per cent) since 2007.
  • The public sector currently accounts for 22.6 per cent of employment in Scotland which has decreased from 22.8 per cent in Q3 1999 and increased slightly from 22.5 per cent over the year from Q3 2007.

In essence, therefore, just over a fifth of the Scottish workforce is employed by the state, and almost 80% of the workforce is employed within the private sector. Given such statistics, I can't really see why this leads to the degree of opprobrium that Scotland is afforded with respect to this issue.

Perhaps Scotland is substantially ahead of the other nations and regions of the United Kingdom in the league of public sector employment?

Well, it doesn't really seem that way either. According to these figures, it is true to say that England, overall, has lower public sector employment at just under 20% of the workforce, but the difference is quite clearly not significant - certainly not enough to warrant the column inches devoted to Scotland's supposed "dependence on the state" and the indigenous problems that such a situation poses for us.

Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say, that the numbers employed by government, local government and the Quangocracy that has mushroomed here since 1999, could probably be slimmed down much further.

But can we nail the myth, once and for all, that Scotland's employment situation is predicated on having a very heavy public sector? It just ain't true, I'm afraid.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Identity Politics Part 1

A thought that has occured to me recently.

Is the existence of the UK political union is the only conduit which British identity hinges upon?

If the Scottish identity, or Catalan identity, or English identity can manage without a political state of its own, why can't the British one? Could one be a Scot and a Brit in a Scotland that was not part of the United Kingdom? In other words could a British identity sustain itself outside its life support mechanism that is the UK political union?

I don't see why the answer to any of those questions should be in the negative. I've blogged before on how independence is primarily a function of the changing governance of Scotland as opposed to anything else. Personally, I don't believe governance should be the sticking plaster that needs to make a national identity cohesive - where a national identity exists.

In reality I'm not comfortable using identity as a mechanism to argue a particular viewpoint with regards to the constitutional question. It doesn't add anything to the flavour of the debate only laying bare the subjective opinions on how they view themselves. And it is a complex area.

But, there is no question that the idea of "nationalism" plays a part in how we argue our standpoints on this issue. One of the (many) myths of British Unionism is that it is above all that nationalist rhetoric and nonsense of those separatists. That Britishness is seen, not a nationalism, it is a civilisation - a refined, liberal, suave and sophisticated viewpoint. This is a ridiculous and intellectually dishonest proposition to hold, let alone expound upon. Unionism is a branch of nationalism, where the United Kingdom is held as the primary nation state to attach itself to. It clearly is a nationalism that is expressed differently to the variant that exists in Scotland. But then that could be said about Australian nationalism, Quebec nationalism, American nationalism or Italian nationalism.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Council of the Isles?

I start with a proposal.

Some of the many arguments against political independence, for Scotland, circulate around the idea that it would cut us off from our neighbours, which are our main markets, is "separatism" or that independence is irrelevant because England, Scotland and Wales have "common interests", a "shared purpose" or are "better together". Some of these are nothing but disjointed meaningless homilies, some are designed to instill fear and uncertainty by using emotive language. But some do have merit. Clearly, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have many common interests sharing a small group of islands in the north west of Europe. Independence or Union, those interests will still exist. The questions to be asked, therefore, are as follows: Is the continuing United Kingdom union the best way to manage these common interests? By extension, would independence damage these common interests and purposes?

I think the answer to both those questions is no.

Essentially, all that independence is, is an an alteration to the governance of Scotland and the institutions that govern Scotland. A new institution could simply be formed to manage the relationships between the countries of the UK, and their common interests, after independence - a so-called "Council of the Isles".

The idea of some kind of collaborative arrangement such as this, is not a new idea in the Scottish constitutional debate or with respect to the wider international context.

The Nordic Community, for example, counts the Scandinavian countries amongst its members and is composed of two separate strands - the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers, both of which have a budget and a range of competences.

Since 1952, the Nordic Council has pursued a policy that says that we gain by acting collectively instead of each country doing the same things on its own. As a result, we enjoy freedom of movement across borders, we are able to work and study in each other’s countries without a lot of red tape, and we are entitled to health care if we fall ill in another Nordic country. The Nordic armed forces participate in common procurement schemes and we can boast of a Nordic action plan for environmental protection.

This embodies much of the sentiment behind some of the Unionist arguments, but no-one is suggesting the Nordic countries should adopt the UK model of union. They have the sufficient latitude to work on their own where it is beneficial to do so, but the ability to work together and in harmony with their neighbours where a mutually advantageous opportunity arises - an aspiration that should be shared by anyone who supports Scottish independence. There is none of the top-down diktat that demarcates the incorporating Union of the United Kingdom, and poisons much of the associated political discourse.

In the British Isles, what could be an ancestor to any Council of the Isles arrangement, should political independence ever occur, already exists in the British-Irish Council (BIC), set up as part of the Belfast Accords in 1998 to manage Northern Irish devolution. The Good Friday agreement, as the accords were more commonly known, stated that the BIC was established to:

promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands

That seems a fair and noble sentiment.

The powers of any putatative Council of the Isles could include (but not be limited to) issues such as cross-border transport, public health control, certain environmental and agricultural issues such as the control of infectious diseases like Foot and Mouth and Bluetongue. Defence may also be an area under the remit of such a body in co-ordinating the defence policies of the different administrations. The Council could also have the ability to act as an intermediary in any disputes between "member states". It could be given the powers to arbitrate in any dispute, or rule in favour of one side or another.

Similarly, the present Financial Crisis would be an area worthy of consideration, given that the banking crisis has hit the UK especially hard. In true Gordon Brown style we could peer into the crystal ball and pontificate what could have happened to Scotland in the past month or so if it were not part of the current UK, but had a Council of the Isles set-up existed.

The two "Scottish" banks - Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS have as many (if not more) roots and interests in England, as they have in Scotland. Indeed, HBOS is the perfect amalgam of a Scottish and English company - the Bank of Scotland and Halifax. Both banks are significant stakeholders in the respective economies of those countries and it would not be in the economic interests of any of the countries for them to "fail". If the Belgian bank Dexia, headquartered in Brussels, can be given a recapitalisation package by the French, Belgian and Luxembourgish governments each contributing - countries where the company has a substantial presence, then surely the same could be said for the countries that comprise the UK? The existence of an overarching Council of the Isles would provide an effective forum for co-ordinating action to mitigate the problems caused by recent financial and banking pressures. (Incidentally, the aforementioned Nordic Council will do just exactly that at an extraordinary meeting in Helsinki on 27th October - with the problems of Iceland very much at the top of the agenda).

More generally, the Council could be established by Treaty of the countries involved. It could be an extension to the work of the current BIC, or something completely different altogether, structured on a basis that is relevant to the constitutional situation that Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish independence would bring. The Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey could be parties (as is the case in the BIC) and the Republic of Ireland could also be invited to join. Instead of Heads of Government, the Council could be composed of parliamentarians from each of the countries involved. Each national legislature could nominate some of its members as representatives to the Council. Like the BIC, the Council could meet anywhere. It could meet quarterly or more often should it be required. The Council could perhaps issue resolutions which are binding on some or all of the member governments - similar to the powers and responsibilities of the United Nations, or European Council.

I understand that what I've written above probably raises more questions, but I think it could dilute, quite considerably, the "separatism" argument which is advanced in some quarters about Scottish independence. It is a Union of sorts and I think a sensible way forward. I think the SNP and others who argue for independence are missing a trick by not proposing such a structure more vigorously than they currently appear to be. Such a structure will never appeal to the most ardent believers in Union, but I don't think that that should stop us from proposing it, and countering the idea that independence is "separatism", represents a "backward retreat" or an inability to work with our nearest neighbours. It is up to those who are advocates of the Union to argue why political independence would lead to the suspension of the working political relationships between the countries of the UK. As I've argued above, it shouldn't.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Closing down debate

I read across at SNP Tactical Voting that some Labour activists have enlisted the help of a Lawyer, with a view to derailing any discussion of a referendum on Scottish independence in the Scottish Parliament. Not a good move, not a good move at all. The powers of the Scottish Parliament are one thing. The legal and constitutional position of devolution is another thing. Attempting to stymie legitimate political debate is something entirely more sinister.

There is absolutely nothing in the Scotland Act 1998, or the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament, which prevent debate on issues outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, such debates have been conducted before c.f The debates on the Iraq War in 2004, Trident in December 2006 and more recently a Private Members Debate on the Glasgow Passport Office. There are many more besides.

Similarly, the Scottish Parliament and Government can set up as many enquiries/commissions and conversations on issues (reserved or devolved) as it likes, without contravening the principles and reservations of Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998 - which are primarily concerned with. As Schedule 4(2)(1) of the Scotland Act 1998 states: An Act of the Scottish Parliament cannot modify, or confer power by subordinate legislation to modify, the law on reserved matters.

The key issue being "legislative competence" or the ability to pass laws on the "Specific Reservations" listed in Schedule 5 of the Act. (Incidentally this seemingly minor caveat - or legal technicality - is all that separates Scotland from independence!)

Perhaps a technicality with respect to the paragraph above is that any inquiries/commissions/conversations would require public money out of the Scottish Consolidated Fund (SCF) to be enabled. The law on this is quite clear and is dealt with by subsection 2 of section 65 of the Scotland Act 1998 where funds are payable out of the SCF for: (a) meeting expenditure of the Scottish Administration,

(b) meeting expenditure payable out of the Fund under any enactment.

If these commissions/inquiries/conversations were matters arising out of (b) (ie requiring legislative approval) then they clearly would be outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. But this is not the case for (a) where they would be considered as part of the expenditure of the Scottish Administration, not requiring legislative approval.

What we can all be in agreement on, however, is that the Scottish Parliament has no ability legislate for independence. But no-one has ever seriously considered that anything other than that has ever been the case. I don't see a consulatative referendum stumbling over that pitfall either.

Friday, 29 August 2008

First Post

A bit new to all this stuff, but I thought it was about time to start one of these bloggy things. I hope it goes well and I hope I have the stamina to keep it going.