Saturday, 2 May 2015

What's so great about Britain?

I’ve been away for the past few months doing research and trying to help with a family crisis. The crisis consists in people losing their jobs or having their salaries drastically cut. It consists in prices rising and food being too expensive to buy.  There are no food-banks here, but nobody starves. There’s a tradition in Russia of friends and family rallying round in times of trouble. Anyway we’ve been through much worse and we’ll come through this too. No doubt some people in Britain think this is all richly deserved. But ordinary people have little say in what their governments do and it’s ordinary people who suffer not those in government. I tell people here in Russia sometimes about the election campaign in Britain. I tell them about the complaints that some people in Scotland have about the UK. It’s all met with utter bemusement. But what’s wrong with Britain they say? What indeed?

There are few countries in the world doing as well as Britain. There’s a simple reason for this. In order for a country to be successful you need three things: Democracy, free markets and the rule of law. Look around the world at countries which are doing poorly in nearly every case you will find that one or more of these things is lacking. Of course there are some rich tyrannies which happen to have been lucky enough to be sitting on an expensive resource, but without the resource they would soon be reduced to poverty. The solution to poverty around the world is to introduce the three things that they lack. If every poor country in the world could introduce democracy, free markets and the rule of law they would rapidly cease to be poor. But that’s easy. Why don’t we do it tomorrow?  

Have you any idea how few full democracies there are in the world? There are 24.
The trouble is that it’s not easy setting up a democracy. Most people think that it’s about achieving power. It isn’t. It’s about being defeated and accepting that defeat without a murmur. In most countries democracy is rigged so that only one person or party really has a chance. It took Britain hundreds of years to develop democracy. It is a very fragile thing that can easily be lost, but it is a very difficult thing to create. Many countries in the past 50 years have tried to create a democracy from tyranny, nearly all have failed. By the way in every country there are parts that habitually vote differently to the whole. That is not flaw in a democracy, it’s a feature. It therefore matters no more that Scotland sometimes votes differently to the UK as a whole than that Aberdeenshire sometimes votes differently to Scotland as a whole. There is no democratic deficit in Scotland. In each case the majority rules. That’s democracy.

Some people in Britain complain about the undemocratic House of Lords. I’m not a great fan either, but it actually does work as an effective check on the UK government. I’m far more concerned that the Scottish government has no check on what it can do at all as it has a committee system that works like the Supreme Soviet doing its master’s bidding. But anyway the answer if you are concerned about the House of Lords is to seek to replace it with some form of elected upper chamber. That too might be useful in Scotland.

The UK economy is one of the most successful in the world. The average standard of living here is very high compared to the vast majority of countries in the world. Even compared to Europe, Britain is doing extraordinarily well. How do we know this? One way we know that the UK is doing well is that people in their hundreds of thousands want to come to live and work here. This is in part because we have the lucky advantage of speaking a language that they too can speak, but also because on the whole we are welcoming. People are voting with their feet to come to Britain. We should thank each of them who compliments us by doing this. We should also reflect on the peculiarity of some contrarians who want to leave.

If you travel around Europe at the moment you will find economies in crisis. If you go further afield you will find a situation that is still worse. In every case the solution is to introduce freer markets.  North and South Korea started from the same point when they were tragically divided. One is now poor the other is wealthy. The difference is quite simple. In North Korea there are not free markets, in South Korea there are.  This experiment has been tested to destruction. There are only two models of economy that work. You can have free markets with social democracy or you can have free markets which are a little bit freer tending towards laissez faire capitalism. There is a degree of political choice here. In the end it’s a decision about public spending. Do you want the Government to spend around 30% of GDP or do you want them to spend between 40 and 50% of GDP. There’s a balance. The less the state spends the more the economy will grow, but lots of the things we want in society depend on government spending.  There is a balance also between growing the economy and trying to make a pleasant inclusive society where everyone has a chance and no-one is left behind. In Britain there is actually very little substantial difference between the economic views of the main parties.  This is because any other view would demonstrably make us all poorer. Unfortunately some people on the fringes have yet to realise this.

Social democracy can work, there are lots of countries which have a social democratic model. But socialism does not work. It will make you poorer. It is therefore senseless when people in Scotland complain that Labour isn’t left wing enough. Labour reacted to events in the modern economy by adapting its ideas so that they could work. People who complain about Labour not being left wing enough are really trying to go back to a model that would make the economy worse and people poorer. I frequently come across SNP supporters who say they want Labour to go back to how it used to be. I get the impression sometimes that this means going back to Michael Foot. But it is precisely because Labour moved with the times that they have remained a party with a plan to run the UK economy that could work. I’m not making a political point here. There is a legitimate debate about Labour and Conservative economic policies. But each has a credible plan that involves us living within our means. Not living within our means leads to poverty. It’s only the SNP that lacks a credible economic plan, partly because they would do or say anything to break up Britain, partly because breaking up Britain is in itself economically incoherent. Why break up one of the few countries that is actually recovering from the 2008 economic crisis?

There is inequality in the UK. But perfect equality is neither possible nor desirable economically. In every successful economy there are rich people and poor people. How much you even this out is a matter of political choice. But poor people in Britain are doing hugely better than poor people in nearly every country in the world. It is because we have a successful economy that we can afford healthcare, benefits, pensions and all the other things we want. The best way to help poor people is to create an economy where there are jobs and which can afford to pay ever higher wages. Britain is creating jobs. This is why people from all over Europe and indeed the world are coming here.

Like democracy, the rule of law is something that takes centuries to develop. The enemy of the rule of law is corruption. Many SNP supporters complain about Britain being corrupt. There are in fact very few countries in the world that are less corrupt that the UKI wouldn’t try to bribe a policeman in Britain for I know that it will only get me into still more trouble. I don’t have to pay a doctor a back hander in order to get treatment. Students don't have to bribe academics to so that they don't fail their courses. Some people think that our politicians are corrupt. In fact we have some of the most honest politicians in the world. The whole parliamentary expenses scandal was in fact a lot of nonsense. How much did these expenses cost the government? At most a few million. In an economy the size of the UK, this is a quite trivial sum. The whole problem stems from the fact that MPs are grossly underpaid. Someone involved in running a country should be paid a competitive amount, yet they don’t even earn what a GP earns. This is silly. Pay MPs an index linked sum that is the equivalent of a director of a small company and then say they must have no expenses whatsoever. Problem solved.

Some SNP supporters complain about paedophilia in Westminster. I find it morally degenerate to try to use child abuse for political purposes. Child abuse exists everywhere in every country including in Scotland. There have been cover ups in Britain. People have been protected who ought not to have been protected. But the fact that we know about these things, the fact that the police are investigating is a demonstration of how little we are corrupt. In a country that is really corrupt you never hear about corruption and no-one dares mention it anyway.

By any normal standard of judgment Britain is a great country. We have problems like everyone else, but the solution is to face them together rather than splitting up and trying to face them apart.

Nationalists assume that everything that’s great about Britain would continue even if there were no Britain. But it is the fact that we have worked together for centuries that has given us free markets, democracy and the rule of law. Everything I love about Scotland except the mountains came into existence during and because of the union. None of these things existed in a proper way prior to the formation of our country.

The glue that holds us together is that we are British. Many SNP supporters hate the word British. They reject it. I wonder if they know what they are rejectingBritish is the identity of choice of most people who have come to the UK from overseas. Many people who were not born in the UK or whose parents do not come from the UK feel unable to describe themselves as English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish. Those identities tend to be available most to those who can trace their ancestry back centuries. I wish that this were not so. But it is so. British is the far more inclusive identity that is shared by all of us equally. I don’t care where your parents come from, if you are a citizen you are as British as I am.

Too many British citizens at the moment are focussing on what divides us rather than what unites us. It is making Britain a very unpleasant place to live. We should all recognise how lucky we are to be here. There are countries that do things better than us perhaps, but there are far, far more that do things worse. What we have, what we share would not necessarily survive divorce. The danger of turning against each other is that we turn against anyone who does not share one of our identities. This frequently is where nationalism leads. I have seen levels of hatred in Scotland that shock me. Simply for putting forward a political view using reasoned argument I have been shouted down and abused in the most despicable way. This is not civic nationalism, it is not even civil nationalism it is hatred against those who think differently. Nationalism is dividing Scotland in a deeply unpleasant way. It is not founded on reason, for it is an attack on Britain and the British which looks faintly ludicrous from a perspective of overseas. Everyone I know in Russia thinks Britain is a great country. One of the best. Everyone I meet admires British history and culture. They find the hatred of Britain and the British by the British simply incomprehensible. I do too. It’s a form of self-hatred and it’s poisoning our country. 

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  1. "" The enemy of the rule of law is corruption" As someone who has lived in countries in the Far East that are high on the corrupt scales I can testify this is correct. On the other hand I don''t think democracy is needed for high economic growth. Examples ? Hong Kong Singapore, China, are not democracies, just semi democracies in the case of Singapore. For over 20 years Singapore had growth rates that were higher than ever known in the world's history, and so has China and Hong Kong ( both as a British colony, and after)... If the SNP think Britain is corrupt they have absolutely no idea what they are talking about - as usual.

    1. Singapore has one person, one vote, in a secret, properly run ballot. How is that "semi-democratic"? Utterly wrong to group it with China or even Hong Kong, in my view.

    2. Arguably China is sitting on a hugely valuable resource (cheap labour!).

      I think China knows it cannot afford to postpone indefinitely expanding personal freedoms and democracy, not only to head off the people demanding these things themselves anyway, but to inject creativity into the country as a means to generate further growth (rather than just by and large copying what the West creates).

      Although Singapore prides itself on how harmonious the different ethnic groups are, has this really been tested, Yugoslavia was a peaceful place whilst there was somebody there who understood how to smooth over the differences.

      Both Singapore and China benefit hugely from having very compliant populations IMO. The state can pretty much do as it wishes with little consultation. When I visited a city in China it was a day when the state had decided to replace all combustion powered motor scooters with electrical versions to reduce pollution. A great idea and a positive thing. However if you loved your carbon guzzler you did not have the option to keep it. You just did what the state told you to.

  2. Bang on the money, Effie.

    Incindentally, I am convinced that, in the event of the SNP getting 50+ seats on Thursday, there is only one way the Union can be saved: whoever ends up as PM stands in front of No 10 on Friday, and declares that, given that a large proportion of the Scottish electorate has voted for a separatist party, the new government will legislate for another in/out referendum to be held in September; but this time the legislation containing a moratorium of 50 years for a further referendum in the event of a 'No'. That will lance the boil, one way or another. The problem is, though, I do not think either Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband has the guts to do something as bold as this: at a time when we need a Churchill or a Lloyd George or a Wellington, we will simply get more grovelling appeasement, further hastening the end. And we'll only have ourselves to blame for having such rubbish leaders.

    Still, looking on the bright side, no votes have been counted yet, and if all the undecideds break for unionist parties, and break tactially, we might yet stop this insanity!

    Keep up the good work!


    1. Georges,

      I had a similar thought to your Churchillian aspiration, albeit something that could have been done in the last few weeks rather than after the election.

      In a nutshell, I wish Miliband had called the SNP bluff over FFA. As I said in a comment over on Kevin Hague's excellent blog, he should have followed the example of Paul Keating (the Labour Prime Minister in Australia) in 1993. Faced with an opposition proposing a VAT, but knowing that voters didn't really want it, he made it loud and clear that if the majority voted for the opposition, he wouldn't stand in it's way when it came to votes in the Senate (the equivalent of our House of Lords). The effect was to concentrate the minds of voters into what they were actually voting for, and not letting them have the excuse (which the SNP currently have with FFA) that it'll never happen.

      So Miliband should have said that "yes, you can vote for the SNP, but if the majority in Scotland vote for a party with a policy of FFA, it'll be my duty as prime minister to respect that, and implement it as soon as possible - and the SNP have previously indicated that they believe 18 months is more than achievable".

      Either the SNP would have to walk back their commitment to FFA, or they would lose some votes. However given the current febrile state in Scotland, it may not be enough. In which case, I think FFA, which is a heck of a lot easier to unwind than independence, would not be the staging post to independence that the SNP believe. A couple of years of austerity max would certainly concentrate Scottish minds.

      The problem with my scenario, and indeed yours, is that the SNP would yet again play the victim card. In my scenario, they would blame Westminster for stealing Scottish money over the last 30 years, which is why Scotland was so poor under FFA. Under your scenario they would blame Westminster for trying to stop Scotland's will for 50 years. Do not underestimate the amount of grievance these people are capable of manufacturing!

    2. Good comments here. The fact is that we don't know what will happen on Thursday and we don't know what will happen afterwards. My plan has already been outlined
      I don't think having another referendum would help. The Nats have shown that they are unwilling to accept any other answer than then one they want. But a referendum by definition is an extraordinary sort of election that is supposed to determine a matter. By their behaviour the Nats have shown that if they lost a 2nd indyref they would want a 3rd etc etc. The answer is to change our way of thinking about our country. Germany is one indivisible country with parts that used to be independent. So is the UK. Cease thinking of Scotland as if we already were independent or we rapidly will become so inevitably. The answer is simple. There will be no further referendum, because the result has already been decided. There is at least a ten to one majority of MPs who are in favour of the UK continuing. Let these MPs outvote the Nats on any constitutional matter. With a little cooperation we can block the Nats forever. It is legal. It is democratic and it is easy.

  3. Well said Effie as usual it's a pleasure to read what you have written.

  4. Effie, Scotland isn't in Britain

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  6. It's not in our nature to blow our own trumpet, I guess that's one of the positives that come from of being backed into a corner.

    1. I don't think we have been backed into a corner. We outnumber the Nats in the UK by well over 60 million. It's very easy indeed to block them democratically. We just need everyone who cares about the UK to unite against our common opponent.

  7. It is so refreshing to find someone who can express themselves so clearly in the current political climate. Your contributions to the debate deserve far wider coverage.
    Public political discourse requires a level of basic literacy to enable the contributor to string together whole sentences without the need to revert to the near-illiterates' default position of using an obscenity for every other word. Sometimes I wonder if Tourette's syndrome is widespread in Scotland, but I suspect it is more likely to be an appalling indictment of Scotland's education system, that so many of those supporting the independence movement and the SNP seem to fail to meet the most basic educational requirements to be useful and productive members of the society they seek to create.
    In the circumstances it is probably best they stick to pitching up at SNP rallies wearing their Hey Jimmie hats, and giving the rest of Britain an insight into what their potential future neighbouring state could resemble...

    1. Thank you. The number of people reading my blog increases every week. Some politicians and journalists follow me on twitter. I think the message is getting across gradually. This blog has grown from nothing, because people like you have shared it with friends, tweeted it on twitter or posted it on facebook.

      I too am dismayed by the level of debate. There are some brilliant SNP supporters who debate politely and make clever well thought out comments. You can find some of them in the comments section of my blogs. But they are few and far between. The majority think that attacking the person is a sound method of argument. Every sentence includes an insulting word. The others simply state their position or still worse simply rant and swear. These people who think they love Scotland are making turning Scotland into a laughing stock. They shame us and our great tradition of enlightenment and reasoned argument.