Wednesday, January 23, 2013

It's an OUT OUT referendum on Euorpe.

    This isn't an in out referendum on Europe, but an out out referendum.  The PM says he will try to negotiate a new deal with Europe and put that to the people in a referendum.  But he must know that the kind of package of repatriated powers that he is seeking, or rather his Tory backbenchers are seeking, is impossible because it would not be compatible with Britain's continued membership. Social and employment laws, business regulations, criminal justice and human rights.  There's just no way that opt outs on all this will be acceptable to other member states.

    So, what happens when he comes back from Brussels with an empty briefcase?  He puts the agreement he can't get to the British people in a referendum?  There wouldn't be anything to vote on.  He would proposing that Britain rejects the proposals from the EU. There would be nothing to vote Yes for.

   What Cameron has tried to do is neutralise the threat from UKIP.  But in doing so he has effectively set Britain on a course which could only lead to departure from the European Union.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

David Cameron's speech on Europe. What he will say and why he is wrong.

David Cameron's speech on Europe is turning into the greatest speech never made. Fortunately, from leaks and briefings we know a lot of what's in it.  Cameron says that he wants to address the "three crises" of Europe: the eurozone debt crisis, the democratic deficit and the loss of European competitiveness.

Taking these in reverse order, the competitiveness issue is probably the most dubious. Is Germany uncompetitive? The Single Market is all about competition. What the prime minister means is that all the social protections of Europe - the working time directive, the social chapter - have placed a "burden" on business that makes Europe uncompetitive with China and South East Asia. But this is pretty dubious also. Europe isn't "uncompetitive" because of social legislation but because Europeans have higher incomes than workers who have just left the paddy fields for the factories of Shnezhen and Guangdong. I trust the PM does not want British wages to be cut to a pound an hour, though I sometimes wonder.

The democratic deficit in Europe is all too real because the EU is very bureaucratic. The European Parliament has very little power, and the big decisions in Europe are taken by the Council of Ministers, on which member states have a veto on many issues. But is Mr Cameron proposing to make the European Parliament a truly democratic institution with legislative powers and the right to elect a government of Europe? Of course not - that would mean a United States of Europe, to which he is resolutely opposed. The PM wants less democracy in Europe not more. He wants powers repatriated to Britain.

Which brings us to the eurozone debt crisis. Now, this is clearly a serious problem, despite the recent calm on the European sovereign debt markets. The action taken by the European Central Bank in buying up the bonds of troubled states like Spain and Greece has been successful, for now, in containing the debt spiral. But the fundamental problem remains: that the single currency needs financial integration at European level. It needs a central European treasury, with the power to issue bonds for the whole of the eurozone backed by the whole of the eurozone, and the power to intervene in member states' financial systems. David Cameron agrees with this, and has called on Europe to "get on with it", But he doesn't want to be part of fiscal union because this too would be a United States of Europe. He even tried to veto the enlargement of the EU bailout fund in December 2011. There is no way the Coalition is going to allow UK taxes and borrowing to be regulated by the European Central Bank, still less have the contents of the UK Chancellor's Budget revealed to the EU before it is presented to parliament.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Europen Union or United Kingdom. Scotland may have to choose.

   To howls of unionist derision, Alex Salmond yesterday outlined his thoughts on an independent constitution for Scotland. He holds these truths to be self evident: that Scots shall have a home as a constitutional right, that there shall be free education in perpetuity, and that there will be no nuclear weapons on Scottish soil. I don't argue with his priorities, though I can't help feeling slightly uneasy at a constitution that sounds suspiciously like election manifesto. What kind of home? Will all education be free under the constitution? Even part time and post graduate university degrees? Will my daughter's guitar lessons be refundable from the state?

There are some constitutional anomalies too. The First Minister says he is affirming the Scottish constitutional tradition of the Declaration of Arbroath, that he says was a declaration of popular sovereignty - which of course it was not. The Scottish nobles who put their seals to the letter to Pope John in 1320 weren't democrats and had no concept of the Rights of Man. But let's not quibble about that - it was a long time ago after all, and we're all democrats now. There is a more direct problem with monarchy.

The SNP's Constitution for a Free Scotland, published in 2002, says that "Executive powers are vested in the Head of State, Queen Elizabeth 11, who is expected and required to act on the advice of the Prime Minister and Ministers". A constitutional monarchy, right enough, but a monarchy nevertheless. Do we really want Elizabeth Windsor, her heirs and successors, reigning over us in perpetuity? Nor am I sure how you reconcile a pledge to reject nuclear weapons with being a member of a nuclear alliance, NATO, which hasn't ruled out the first use of them.

But least the First Minister is talking about the constitution and making positive proposals for how a written constitution might improve the governance of Scotland. The No campaign has been predictably dismissive of the whole idea - that it is Alex Salmond's ego getting in the way of political reality. "Scotland has a right to a first minister who is honest", was BT's response yesterday. The UK government has ruled out any pre-referendum talks on the transition to independence, on the grounds that they don't believe it's going to happen.

But they are missing a trick here. If they were to come up with some constitutional proposals themselves they could rebut the charge that they are only interested in negative scare-mongering. Right now, the UK government is supposed to be reforming the House of Lords, but seems to have no idea how to do it. The West Lothian Question remains an issue, and the Barnett Formula has to be reformed because the Scottish parliament is to get greater tax and borrowing powers in 2016. Better Together could run these elements together and make concrete proposals for a federal UK, with the House of Lords as a regionally-based Senate, an English Grand Committee for domestic legislation, fiscal autonomy for Scotland and a written constitution. The Coalition is supposed to be drafting a Bill of Rights as we speak, but can't decide what to put in it. There it is.

  This is a rare opportunity address not just the Scottish Question, but the London Question. Britain is becoming two nations: London and the rest of the country, and there is a pressing need for a constitution that devolves and decentralises power. But what do we get instead? A referendum on British membership of the European Union - an issue that is scandalously irrelevant to the real issues facing this country. It raises what might be called the West Strasbourg Question: what if Scotland is thrown out of Europe on the basis of English votes?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Skivers - Why Britain's becoming the nasty country.

MPs need to be saved from themselves. How did they allow the story of their £20,000 a year pay claim to emerge in the week they voted to cut unemployment benefits in real terms for the first time since the 1930s? Nothing better illustrates the extraordinary world that politicians inhabit. where a salary that is greater than 95% of the working population's is considered too little to live on.

Just to recap: Claimants are to get 1% increase in benefits as a result of last weeks vote - that's well below the inflation rate. Public sector workers get 1% too. But MPs want 32%? I don't think so. MPs are feeling the pinch because they can no longer put in those expenses claims that used to bolster their incomes prior to the scandal in 2010.  They just can't manage on the miserable stipend of £66,000.  MPs believe that they should be paid "the rate for the job", and they are falling far behind comparable professions like doctors and senior civil servants.

WE all feel that we are underpaid - even idiots like the French film actor, Gerard Depardieu, who said he would emigrate rather than pay his taxes. We live in a culture of peevish plutocracy, where utterly undistinguished and often incompetent accountants can end up being paid millions if they happen to be called Fred Goodwin. and are put in charge of a bank. We have created a society where everyone believes that everyone else is on the take. All those skiving benefit claimants lying in bed with the blinds drawn while we hard working "strivers" go out to work.

But who really believes that claimants are unemployed out of choice? I don't know how anyone lives on £71 job seekers allowance - less if they are under 25. Would anyone live on that if they could possibly avoid it? Yes, I know: housing benefit is a national scandal - but that's because the price of housing is a national scandal, kept aloft by money printing and near zero interest rates. The money doesn't go to the claimant.

Why is this hostility so evident in Britain, and not in countries like Norway and Denmark? Of course, there are people who question the Nordic model of social democracy, but they don't pose any significant political challenge there. This is largely because these countries are so economically successful. The conventional wisdom in neoliberal Britain is that welfare is unaffordable, a break on the economy, a 'luxury' we cannot afford. In fact there is very little correlation between the size of the welfare bill and the performance of the economy. Denmark is one of he highest taxed, highest welfare countries in Europe, yet it sailed through the economic crisis. Welfare benefits are much more genererous in Germany than Britain.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Trident job losses and other independence scare stories.

So much for accentuating the positive. Barely a week into 2013 and we're knee deep in scare stories already. Though it has to be said that this year some are scarier than others. Last week's shock horror report from the Treasury claiming that Scots would lose £1 a year if they voted to leave the  Union didn't exactly make the hair stand on end. We're promised another eleven of these Treasury reports in 2013, which will please the Yes Scotland campaign.

And we're also being told, once again, that Scotland is going to be thrown out of Europe if we vote for independence. That's if David Cameron doesn't get us thrown out first, with his No Surrender speech on Europe next month. The eurosceptic noises coming from the Tory benches have so frightened business leaders like Richard Branson of Virgin that a collection of them have written to the Prime Minister urging him “not to put our membership of the EU at risk”.  Funny, I thought it was only Alex Salmond who was allowed to do that.

But fright night would not be complete without the old faithful: Trident jobs losses. West Central Scotland will be devastated if the Scots dare to challenge the presence of weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde. Pick a number, any one will do: 19,000 jobs to go according to anonymous government sources yesterday; 11,000 according to Jackie Baillie, the local Labour MP; and 6,000 according to the Better Together Campaign. Then again, the Scottish Trades Union Congress puts the number of jobs at direct risk from Trident removal at 1,536, based on government figures, and the Ministry of Defence told the Sunday Herald last year that “there are 520 civilian jobs at HM Naval Base Clyde, including Coulport and Faslane, that directly rely on the Trident programme.” . So you pays your money and you takes your choice - around £100bn as it happens. That's a hell of a job creation programme.

The economics of this are questionable to say the least. If no defence review were to be permitted unless it involved zero job losses we'd still be building Dreadnoughts. Come to think of it, that's not a bad idea. At least the World War One battleships were of some conceivable use; we could send them to the Falklands to wind up the Argies. You can't do that with Trident, which is only useful for destroying Russian cities. In fact, the government could mop up those Trident job losses by building a range of heritage naval vessels, which could double as theme parks when we're not being threatened by foreigners.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Is the independence referendum already lost?

SCENES from the independence debate: I took my son, Jamie, to the very excellent Stand comedy club shortly after New Year.
It was a packed and raucous show, with a mostly young audience. The compere – a tubby guy from Edinburgh whose name escapes me – launched into an obscene rant about Alex Salmond and Scottish Nationalists who, apparently, are people of a sordid sexual disposition who need to be put down in various brutal ways. And anyway, he said, the Scots "could never govern themselves 'cos they are totally and completely f***ing useless". As a punchline, he bawled out: "Does anyone here support independence?" Not a soul spoke.
You can't judge the politics of a country by its comedy, but if this had been Barcelona, that comic would have been lucky to escape unharmed. Catalans, who are also having an independence referendum in 2014, are fiercely proud of their abilities, whether they support independence or not, and would have taken exception to this affront to their national dignity. Now, don't get me wrong: it's good that we laugh at ourselves (though if the compere had been funny it might have helped). I only offer this as a random insight into Scotland's frame of mind as we enter 2013: the insecurity and awkwardness many Scots feel about the whole idea of independence; the lack of confidence in their ability to govern themselves; uncertainty about whether they even want to bother with it. It's Yes Scotland's biggest nightmare: the credibility gap.
Opinion polls confirm that Scots still just don't get independence. At least, not yet. The most striking thing about the referendum debate thus far is how little change there has been in Scottish attitudes to independence since the SNP's landslide victory in 2011. Scots still oppose independence by around two to one – a ratio that has remained constant for the last 20 years, give or take the occasional poll giving independence a marginal and transitory lead. It's hard to look at the evidence and not conclude that the Yes campaign has lost even before the campaign has started. Labour and the Better Together campaign are already awarding themselves battle honours and talking of getting three million No votes.
The Yes campaign team insists it is relaxed about the polls and points out that the SNP's landslide victory in the Scottish elections in 2011 was incubated largely during the campaign itself. In the year running up to the Holyrood elections, Labour had a comfortable lead in the polls and it was only after the campaign started that Scottish voters decided that Iain Gray was toast.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

America avoids the Fiscal Cliff, as Britain and Europe tumble over it.

America didn't go over the fiscal cliff. That's good news, right? Well, the stock market seemed to think so: the FTSE rose over 6,000 for the first time in eighteen months. And it was surely a good thing to see investors here, and in the rest of the world, celebrating an increase in taxes for the rich - or at any rate those earning over $450,000 a year.

This was a victory for President Obama, of that there is no doubt. Refusing to blink as the Tea Party Republicans took America to the brink, he managed to avoid any big cuts - at least for now - in federal spending on tax credits to the low paid or welfare to the long-term unemployed, who stood to have their benefits cut completely. The US is a slightly fairer country as a result. The Republicans have been left divided and confused, with the budgetary super-hawk, Paul Ryan, voting with Obama.

But isn't it just a little odd that hedge fund managers and other stock market money men here should find this all so positive? Presumably, they believe that these measures, the avoidance of deep spending cuts, mean that the world economy is now in better shape. But that isn't the economic logic they have been applying on this side of the pond. In the UK, the Coalition decided to go over its own voluntary fiscal cliff in 2010 when the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced that he was going to put through the deepest spending cuts in half a century and eliminate the deficit in five years. 'Cheers!', said the stockmarket suits. 'Just we need to put the country on course for recovery'. Unfortunately, the UK economy went into a triple dip recession which looks like lasting well into 2013. So, why is a fiscal cliff good here but not in America?

In Europe, they went even further over the cliff and plunged Mediterranean countries like Spain, Greece and Portugal into crushing economic depressions. Why? The US is in just as serious a debt hole as the eurozone. America has a £16.4 trillion debt, and its annual deficit – the amount the governmen has to borrow each year – is nearly 9% of GDP. That's higher than ANY eurozone country's deficit and 3 times the 3% ceiling in the EU “stability pact”. Yet, the ECB and the German bankers were yesterday also celebrating the fact that America had decided not to do what they've been doing. Perhaps they could learn something.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Scottish hearts are getting better. About time.

2013 is supposed to be the year of the positive in Scotland, and for all the negativity that saturates coverage of Scottish affairs there is a lot to be positive about. 

One neglected statistic that caught my eye recently was that, in Scotland, deaths from coronary heart disease have fallen by 43% in ten years. The standardised death rate from stroke is also down 42%. Given Scotland's problems of the heart this is a considerable, if largely unacknowledged achievement. Yes, 8,000 Scots still die from heart disease and we still have the worst coronary rate in Europe, but the fact that fewer people are dying from it is surely a cause for mild celebration. Especially in a year in which the dying Scotsman has become a staple joke on programmes like Have I Got News For You.

Outside the parliamentary constituencies in and around Glasgow, Scotland is almost as healthy as England. Heart disease is a very west coast phenomenon. But the good news here is that it is in Glasgow that the biggest falls in mortality have been recorded – a 10% drop in heart deaths in a year. For my money, that's one of the best pieces of news that's come out of the city in the last twenty years.

The improvement is down to a combination of factors: enlightened public policy – the smoking ban in 2005; improvements in medical care – we have some of the best heart surgeons in Europe; a decade of health promotion; and, most importantly, a conscious decision by many Scots to stay alive. All those people out running and cycling. It shows that people really can change, even in Scotland, and in a surprisingly short time. It's not entirely clear why this change of heart has happened, but the existence of the Scottish parliament certainly helped to alter the climate of passivity and neglect that had allowed Scotland's health problems to go unchecked for four decades.

Another factor is the decline in drinking, especially among men. Bet you didn't realise that Scotland is going on the wagon, but according to the 2011 Scottish government health survey,  The number of Scottish adults drinking more than recommended limits has fallen by a quarter in the last ten years, from 28% to 21%.  Mean weekly consumption among men has declined from 20 units to 15.     That's a very real change, but one which has had almost zero publicity. Nor has the fact that Scots, especially women, in upper income groups are nearly twice as likely to be problem drinkers than people in the lower income groups. So much for the popular image, peddled by soap operas like “Shameless”, that the poor spend all their money on drink. 

I'm not making this up. It's all on the web. But I bet if you asked the average man or woman in the street, or the average MP in Westminster, they would tell you that just living in Scotland is seriously bad for your health, that lack of exercise and bad diet are sending us to an early grave, and that young people here are brought up on a combination of Buckfast and skunk weed. In fact young people especially seem to be turning away from alcohol and drugs. The numbers of under fifteen year olds taking drink or drugs once a week has fallen by a third in ten years, and the numbers taking cannabis has halved.