Friday, 19 July 2019

The Brexit case against Scottish independence

Let’s imagine that somehow the UK leaves the EU sometime around the end of October and makes a clean break. The EU faced with the prospect of no deal might at the last minute give us a more favourable deal. Alternatively, the UK might actually leave with out further negotiation. All the attempts by Remainers to thwart Brexit might fail, not least because the EU might decide that it doesn’t want troublesome Britain to be an EU member any longer. What would happen next for the SNP?

There would, no doubt, be some economic disruption and therefore SNP attempts to blame the wicked Tory Brexit for any and all difficulties arising. There would be some Europhile anger. But what if despite all the Remainer warnings leaving without a deal didn’t lead to chaos and that the problems were short lived. After all Britain would simply be in the position in relation to the EU that most of the world is. Lots of countries get on fine without being in either the EU single market or its customs union. We did too prior to joining. The SNP therefore might be in for a rerun of 2016. Short term anger about the Leave vote lessened as it became clear that the UK economy was doing fine. So long as the UK economy remains resilient in 2019/2020 the same will happen again.

For so long as there is a Conservative Government it will be possible to block SNP requests for a second independence referendum. They can either go down the illegal route and face a Pro UK boycott and possible jail or they can wait. If the SNP loses its pro-independence majority at the next Scottish Parliamentary election, then that will be it. Independence will be off the table for the foreseeable future. The SNP’s best chance is that sometime soon there is a General Election leading to a Labour Government dependent on SNP votes. Would Jeremy Corbyn give the SNP a second referendum as the price for their support? Who knows? But faced with a choice between Britain and anyone who hates Britain he always goes for the latter. So, he probably would.

But the UK would already have left the EU. How would this effect the argument? This requires some detailed analysis.

1. Currency.

An independent Scotland, if it wished to join the EU would have to have its own currency and would have to promise to join the Euro. These are conditions of applying to join. There may be ways round this. There may be opt outs. But in principle the Scottish public would have to go through changing pounds sterling into pounds Scots and then into Euros. Any debt such as a mortgage denominated in Sterling could either increase or decrease depending on the exchange rates occurring during these transitions. It would be impossible to predict the result of this. If on the other hand Scots preferred to keep their mortgage in UK pounds, then voting to remain in the UK would be the only sensible course of action. Currency union between the UK and Scotland with one inside the EU and the other outside would be untenable. The mere fact that Scotland would have to promise to join the EU would make such a union inherently unstable even in the short term.

2. Free trade.

An independent Scotland would have to choose whether or not to join the EU. No one knows whether the UK would at some point in the future be able to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU. But if it did, this deal would not apply to an independent Scotland. Nor would any other deal that the UK was able to negotiate with anyone else, such as the USA. An independent Scotland would have to negotiate its own deals both with the UK and with the EU. The problem is that it could not automatically expect to have both. If Scotland were in the EU, but the UK was completely outside, then there would have to be tariffs between the UK and Scotland. Alternatively, if Scotland remained completely outside the EU there would have to be tariffs between Scotland and the EU. No one can predict with certainty what sort of deal Scotland would get from either the EU or the UK. The UK could negotiate à la Barnier demanding billions even to start talking about trade. It could demand “independence in name only” just as in effect the EU demanded “Brexit in name only”. Who can predict how negotiations between Scotland and the UK would end. The UK might give the SNP everything they want, but then didn’t Brexiteers think that the EU would give the UK everything we want. We have learned over the past few years that   negotiations don’t always go as we want them to.

3. Power.

The Scottish Parliament will gain extensive new powers, covering 153 areas, because of the UK leaving the EU. If the SNP were to argue for EU membership, they would have to tell Scottish voters that independence would mean giving up these powers. Why do you want the Scottish Parliament to be less powerful? Alternatively, if they were to argue that Scotland would not join the EU, they would have to explain why they were complaining about the UK leaving the EU?

4. Border.

If an independent Scotland were to join the EU, then it would have to agree to membership of Schengen. This would mean that there would have to be passport free travel between Schengen members and Scotland. This would mean that Scotland could not be part of the Common Travel Area that at present covers the whole of the British Isles. The Republic of Ireland can only remain a member of this area because it has an opt out from Schengen. Of course, Scotland could hope for an opt out too, but that would be up to the EU. For this reason and also because there is no way of knowing whether there would be a free trade agreement between the UK and Scotland, there is no way of knowing if there would be some sort of border checking between Scotland and England.

5. Fishing.

If the UK leaves the EU completely then the UK will regain control of our territorial waters. We will return to the situation that existed prior to joining the European Community. This will mean that for the first time in decades UK fishermen will no longer have to compete with the EU. The likelihood is that fish stocks will improve, catches increase and fishing communities will begin to do a great deal better. If the SNP wishes to join the EU, then they will have to explain to these fishing towns that the situation that they have wanted for so long is soon going to cease. Scottish independence in the EU would mean giving up control of Scottish territorial waters.

6. Rights.

At present everyone in Scotland has the right to live and work anywhere in the UK. We have the same rights to benefits, healthcare etc as any other UK citizen. At present EU citizens also have most of these rights too. But these rights are contingent on the UK being an EU member. There will thus after Brexit be a distinction between EU citizens and UK citizens. We may choose to give EU citizens certain rights post Brexit, but we could also limit those rights. In principle a citizen of France could be treated no better nor worse than a citizen of Japan. While the whole of the UK remained a part of the EU the SNP could argue that Scots would retain the same rights in other parts of the UK as we do at present. But with the UK outside the EU where is the guarantee that these rights will continue indefinitely? In the end if you wish to retain the rights of UK citizenship, you can’t vote to become a citizen of another nation state. Of course, dual citizenship might be possible for a time and a future UK Government might grant Scots all the rights we enjoy at present, but it wouldn’t have to. It would all depend on how the divorce negotiations went. Just as post Brexit UK citizens won’t automatically have the right to live and work in the EU, so after independence Scots would have no automatic right to live and work in the other parts of the UK.

7. Sovereignty.

If an independent Scotland were to join the EU, then it would have to recognise that in many areas EU law would be supreme. At present as a part of the UK the direction travel is towards devolution. The UK Parliament has less and less control over matters that only affect Scotland. The EU’s direction of travel on the other hand is towards greater and greater integration. The move towards the EU becoming a sovereign nation state is gradual but inexorable. The long-term success of the Euro will depend on the sort of political union that enables the US dollar and UK pound to work. The supremacy of EU law then at some point not far from now will amount to sovereignty. An independent Scotland then would become a state rather like Vermont or Texas. Under those circumstances it would no longer be able to leave the EU. The European Union, just like the USA would become one nation indivisible. The UK outside the EU on the other hand offers Scotland more practical power over our own affairs. There are rules that make the Scottish Parliament supreme over most devolved issues. This does not amount to full sovereignty, but over the issues that concern most Scots on a day to day basis it amounts to more power than we would have as an “independent” member of the EU.

8. Arithmetic

The UK puts more into the EU than it takes out, while Scotland gets more from the UK than it pays in. But if an independent Scotland were to join the EU it would have to pay more in than it took out. Leaving the UK to join the EU therefore has the double consequence of Scotland losing what we gain from the UK while at the same time having to pay more into the EU pot than we would be able to take out.
There is no membership fee required for the various parts of the UK to trade with each other. This is truly free trade. It is one reason why Scotland does most of its trade with the other parts of the UK. Why would Scotland pay a membership fee to trade with EU countries with whom at present it does a relatively small amount of trade, while having in addition to pay a fee (tariffs) to trade with our greatest trade partner (the other parts of the UK). Simple arithmetic suggests that Scotland is bound to lose from this arrangement, not least because Scottish goods might have to pay a fee to travel through England to reach the continent. How else, other than by sea, would they get there?

The EU and the UK are now on different economic paths. The UK may well become a low regulation, low tax, free trade haven off the coast of Europe. If Scotland chooses the EU path, then the Scottish economy is bound to diverge markedly from the UK economy. Would this divergence be compensated by increased trade with the EU? If so why hasn’t this happened already. After all the UK is still a member of the EU. If Scotland’s share of trade with the EU were likely to grow, why didn’t this growth happen long ago?

9. Union.

Scotland faces a choice between remaining in the UK or joining the EU. It could decide to leave both, which would be the only way for it to become truly independent. But again the SNP can hardly demand independence because Scotland is being forced to leave the EU if Scotland doesn’t intend to become a member. I suspect also that being outside both the EU and the UK would be a step too far for all but the hardcore Scottish nationalist.

Most nation states have the following things in common. Shared geography, such as an island or a peninsular. Shared language and culture. While most Scots would feel immediately at home in any part of the UK, few of us would be able to live and work easily in most European Union countries. The reason for this is linguistic. Many European Union countries are quite unknown to most of us. How many Scots can name more than one city in Slovenia or in Slovakia. Yet the SNP want us to choose to leave a nation state with which we are familiar (the UK) in order to join one with which for the most part we are unfamiliar. The EU lacks the sense of shared history and identity that is necessary for a nation state to function. Germans do not think that Greeks are their compatriots.  They are too dissimilar. Most UK citizens can fit in easily wherever they live in the UK and we are willing to subsidise the poorer parts of the UK without limit. There is no need for bailouts for our profits and losses are held in common.  It is this that makes the UK a nation state that has endured for centuries, while the EU may not survive even the next Euro crisis, because Germans won’t pay Greek debts. Why would Scots choose to leave a union that works for a union that doesn’t work?   

10. Democracy.

Each Scottish voter elects four representatives. One goes to Holyrood, one goes to Westminster, one goes to Brussels and one runs the local council. We have the same say as every other voter in the UK. Scotland’s five million people can be outvoted, but so can Yorkshire’s five million people. This would be the case in an independent Scotland too. Aberdeenshire would always be outvoted by Strathclyde. This is not a fault in democracy. It’s a feature. But who decides how Britain, Scotland and the local council are run? The people we elect. The UK Government is wholly made up of MPs who were directly elected. So too is the Scottish Parliament made up of such people. The local council too. But who runs the EU? Is the EU run by the people that we elect to the European Parliament? Do they form a Government that decides all the important matters? No. Every important decision in the EU is made by people who have been appointed. No one elected Barnier, or Juncker. Ursula Von der Leyen may become the next President of the European Commission and Christine Lagarde the President of the European Central Bank, not because Europeans voted for them but because of a behind closed doors stich up between France and Germany. Why would the SNP want Scotland to leave a fully functional democracy (the UK) where each Scot has the same democratic rights and power to influence events as every other UK citizen, in order to join what is an oligarchy with a democratic façade.

Scottish nationalists are liable to respond to these points with their usual mixture of fury and insult, but unless they can come up with convincing answers to how an independent Scotland would cope with the realities of Brexit, then they are liable to find that they have lost the argument and with it any chance of achieving Scottish independence.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Who should pay for the BBC?

The withdrawal of free television licences for over 75s should really be looked at in terms of how the BBC should raise money in the first place. At present there is a universal flat rate tax on televisions with some exemptions. What matters is not so much who is exempted as whether this method of revenue raising makes any sense in a world with so many television providers.

 There are really three methods by which a television company can raise revenue.


2. Subscription.

3. Advertising.

The BBC uses taxation. ITV uses advertising. Sky uses subscription, advertising or a mixture of subscription and advertising. It would also be possible to rely on donation. This works for some media organisations, the Guardian springs to mind, but it is hard to imagine the BBC being able to raise anything like its present revenue by means of donation.

I don’t watch much television, but I know that it is important for many people, especially older people who might be living on their own. The BBC has faults. I find it to have a soft left, PC tone. I strongly suspect that the vast majority of BBC employees and presenters vote for left of centre parties and support staying in the EU. I find much of BBC output to be unintelligent, but I also recognise that on national occasions we all turn to the BBC and that it would be a great pity if it didn’t survive.

Thirty of forty years ago the licence fee made a certain sense. There were only three channels and almost anyone who owned a TV would watch a lot of the BBC. Funding could have come from Central Government by means of a grant, but it would still in the end have been coming from taxation. Nothing is free.

Today however it is possible to watch “TV” online. There are endless satellite or cable channels and it is easy to imagine someone who has to pay for a TV licence rarely if ever watching the BBC.  It could well be argued that this is no different from healthy people having to pay for the NHS or childless people having to pay for schools. We all pay for things through taxation that we personally don’t use. But is a TV licence the most cost-effective way of raising revenue?

Why doesn’t the BBC offer a subscription model of raising revenue? It is clearly possible for it to do so. If Sky can charge viewers to watch its programmes, then the BBC could do so also. The advantage of this method of raising revenue would be that there would be no need for TV detector vans to roam the country looking for licence fee dodgers. There would be no need to take people to court for failing to pay their licence.

It would also be possible to partially fund the BBC through advertising. At present between its programmes the BBC has a long “break” where it advertises its own programmes and services. This could easily be replaced with real paid advertising. Within programmes their need be no breaks, just as at present. Would anyone mind? Some might say that this make the BBC vulgar and commercial? But much of its output is already commercial and indistinguishable from ITV. I believe no one would mind adverts between BBC programmes.  

It is also important that the BBC slims down. There is no need whatever for it to fund such large numbers of channels and websites. It is also unnecessary for an organization that depends on taxation revenue to pay presenters and executives huge salaries. Presenters become famous and popular because they work for the BBC. It would not be especially difficult to find someone else to read the news, argue with politicians or talk about football for far less than is spent at present.

If the BBC were funded by a mixture of advertising and subscription it would have to care more than at present that it provided programmes that people wanted to watch and viewpoints that more accurately reflect those in the country. It could provide a core service of two TV channels and four radio stations. It could have a single online news and weather service. It could learn to live within its means.

The cost of paying for the BBC could in this way be reduced, so that it would no longer be a problem either for the BBC or the Government to give “free” subscriptions to the elderly. The benefit of doing so in terms of providing vulnerable people with the television they rely on, would far outweigh the relatively trivial cost of doing so.

In a few years a television and a computer will be indistinguishable. Each will stream television over the Internet. There will be no more televisions to tax. Change is coming whether the BBC wants it or not. Now is the time to find a sustainable long-term model of funding that safeguards what the BBC does best. The fact that it could keep television free for the over 75s at the expense of overpaid and hypocritical social-justice warriors like Gary Lineker would just be a bonus.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

How would a clean Brexit affect Scottish independence?

It may be that we have reached a stage in Scotland where the whole debate about Scottish independence has gone beyond reason. Some people want independence come what may, just because they want it. There is a limit to the power of argument. People support political positions and then find reasons to justify them, not the other way round. But Scottish nationalism faces a greater challenge that most historical independence movements. It not only lacks the overwhelming majority that has usually been necessary for the emergence of new sovereign nation states, it lacks a majority at all.

It is for this reason that Scottish nationalists still need to try to persuade that relatively small percentage of the Scottish public who are undecided on independence or at least open to changing their minds. But this leads to a certain tension within Scottish nationalism, which the Brexit debate has made still more visible.

Who in Scotland is most likely to want Brexit? I strongly suspect more SNP supporters want Brexit than supporters of any other party. Scottish Conservatives are still relatively few in number and a good number are Remainers. Hard Left old-fashioned Labour supporters might think that the EU is a capitalist conspiracy designed to undermine the workers, but these people have been declining since their 70s peak. Liberal Democrats who support Brexit no doubt exist, but must be about as rare as Tories in the Labour Party.

Why do a significant number of SNP supporters want Brexit? Some do so because they think that it makes a second independence referendum more likely. They also hope that the anger some Scots feel about leaving the EU will mean they change their minds about independence. For this reason, an SNP Europhile might cynically support Brexit as a means to an end.

But a significant number of SNP supporters want Brexit because they see it as the condition for the possibility of Scotland becoming genuinely independent. The arguments for Brexit with regard to the UK’s relationship with the EU are, after all, similar to the arguments for Scotland being independent from the UK. They are sovereignty arguments. 

The contradiction at the heart of official SNP policy of being opposed to rule by Westminster, but happy to be ruled by Brussels is obvious. If you so love being in a Union of European countries, why are you unhappy being in a Union of British ones? Scottish independence supporters may argue that the EU is a looser union than the UK and that Scotland could still be an independent sovereign nation state in the EU, but this doesn’t look like a good long-term bet. Ever closer union is liable to turn independence very quickly into independence in name only.

It is therefore reasonable for some SNP supporters to see Brexit as a stepping stone to genuine Scottish independence. The problem they face is the SNP’s official Europhile viewpoint exists for a reason.

The SNP offered the softest possible version of independence in 2014. They put forward a view that independence would be so close to remaining in the UK that we would hardly notice the difference. The argument went, so to speak, that Scotland would be Austria, while the other parts of the UK would be Germany. Crossing the border would be seamless. The currency would be the same. The EU rules and regulations would mean trade went on as normal and we could all live and work where we pleased.

But here is where Brexit makes the difference. If Germany were to leave the EU, then this would profoundly affect their fellow German speakers in Austria. Likewise, for Scotland, if the UK leaves the EU completely, then the idea that Scotland can have soft independence becomes untenable.

This is the dilemma for independence supporters. In order to win the argument they need the softest possible independence, but this depends not only on Scotland remaining in the EU, it depends on the UK remaining too. The problem for the SNP however is that they have no way of controlling how the other parts of the UK vote on Brexit.

It may be that a clean Brexit turns a certain number of Scottish Liberal Democrats and Labour supporters into independence supporters. Opinion polls may show a surge in support for the SNP, but they will still have to win the argument and if the UK completely separates from the EU that argument will be much, much harder to win. Hardcore independence supporters will be happy with hard independence both outside the EU and outside the UK, but Europhile Scots would have to recognise that if Scotland were in the EU while the UK was out, Scottish independence would be harder still.  There could be no pretence that life would go on in more or less the same way. The break with the other parts of the UK would wide and deep. This would be a hard independence and a very clean break.

Even after nearly one hundred years of independence the Irish economy is so intertwined with the UK that a clean Brexit will have severe consequences for trade between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, what would it do to an independent Scotland?

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Is it worth writing about politics?

It may be that we have been living in politically momentous times in the UK, but I have found them dull. Yet another vote in Parliament on Brexit, but can I be bothered to find out who won. A brand-new party wins a national election and sets in motion the possible destruction of the Conservative Party, but does it matter. If so, do I care who leads it?

I have found that there is nothing to write and so I have not written. There is only one question in UK politics and too much has been written about it already. We need action not words.

If Britain can completely leave the EU then there will be the chance to debate other things, but until that happens we are stuck with stupendous events that are sterile.

All that is left for the moment is to explain the logic of the situation and try to get to the essence.

1. The Conservatives need to be led by a Brexiteer. Jeremy Hunt voted to Remain, therefore they need Boris. All the rest of the debate is uninteresting. Going down the Remainer who is now an enthusiastic Brexiteer route has been tried already. We’ve “been through this movie before.

2. There is no point debating what a future Prime Minister will or will not do when these wonderful new things depend entirely on the Conservative Party surviving in Government, which depends entirely on that Government delivering a complete break from the EU.

3. The only interesting issue of the moment then is how a new PM can credibly explain to the EU that we are certainly going to leave on October 31st come what may. So long as Parliament undermines the UK’s negotiating position by taking “No deal” of the table, there is no chance whatsoever of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement with the EU. This of course is the whole point. The Remainers in Parliament are not so much trying to stop “No deal”. They are really trying to stop Brexit entirely. So, given the numbers in Parliament how does the new PM force through a “No deal” Brexit if necessary? We have all learned the word “prorogue”, but is it possible, is it legal, will it work?

4. If it becomes necessary for the Conservative Party to fight a General Election in the near future, either to get majority to force through “No deal” or to continue in Government after “No deal”, how can they possibly win? Millions of disillusioned Brexiteers have moved to the Brexit Party. Would enough of them come back if finally, the Conservatives were about to deliver a complete, clean Brexit? If not, there are two solutions. Offer Farage and friends a pact whereby his party gets a free run in those northern seats where the Conservatives have little chance of victory. Alternatively offer Farage and fifty other Brexit party candidates safe Conservative seats and some cabinet posts. Brexiteers have been divided from the start. It’s time to unite.

5. The SNP as usual are angry. Apparently a “No deal” Brexit would threaten the Union. Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t want Boris to be PM. Always do what your opponent least wants. The SNP are desperate for the UK to remain in the EU or alternatively for us to have Brexit in name only. The reason for this is that a complete break with the EU makes the SNP’s dream of independence much, much harder to achieve. A “No deal” Brexit would make some SNP supporters very angry indeed. But even if we stayed in the EU they would find something else to be angry about. In my view the condition for the possibility of Scotland remaining in the UK long term is that the UK leaves the EU. Otherwise at some point there is liable to be a second or a third referendum on independence and at some point, the SNP will win. No country can long endure with separatists allowed at any point to break it up. So, either take the supposed democratic right to secession off the table like Spain, or make secession so difficult that no one sensible would try it.

6. If the UK can completely leave the EU, then in order to become an independent nation state, Scotland face a horrible dilemma. Do we join the EU or do we not? If we join the EU, which apparently is the reason we seek independence, then we would be in a different trading bloc to our most important trade partner (the UK). Moreover, while the UK economy would be no longer a part of the EU’s Single Market, the Scottish economy would be regulated by Brussels. The present close alignment which Scotland presently enjoys with the other parts of the UK could not continue. If on the other hand the SNP chose for an independent Scotland to be outside the EU, then Scotland would face the prospect of doing free trade deals both with the UK and with the EU. Anyone who has witnessed the difficulty that the UK has faced trying to negotiate a deal with the EU will not look forward to these twin tasks with much optimism. Why shouldn’t both the UK and the EU present Scotland with a bill of billions just to begin talking?

7. We have learned that apparently invisible borders such as the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic are actually more problematic than the SNP led us to believe back in 2014. It’s all very well when, for example, Austria and Germany are both in the EU that they have a seamless border, but the border between the EU and the non-EU has turned out to be a serious issue. If Scotland were in the EU while the UK was not, then the border between Berwick and Gretna would be similar to the one between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The situation for Scotland would in fact be rather worse as a condition for joining the EU now is that a member state agrees to be part of Schengen. The Republic has an opt out.  It may be that with good will a solution to the border problem in Ireland can be found. Perhaps technology can do the job, but no one can now pretend that Scottish independence would have no border ramifications. If Scotland had different trade agreements to the UK or had different immigration policies, then some sort of border checks with regard to trade or migration would be inevitable.

8. In my view Northern Ireland is simply part of the UK.  No foreign power has any more claim on it than any other part of any other European country. The borders of Europe are a result of accident, war and treaty. The fact that parts of Poland used to be German gives Germany no legitimate claim them, just as the fact that Crimea used to be part of Russia gives Russia no legitimate claim. It doesn’t matter if the people of Crimea want to Russian or even if they vote 100% to be part of Russia, it is still legally part of Ukraine. This is how sovereignty works. The UK however wished to have peace in Northern Ireland and made the Belfast Agreement with the Republic of Ireland. If the people of Northern Ireland vote to join the Republic, then it is up to them on the sole condition that the citizens of the Republic agree.

9. At present the Irish Taoiseach looks to be using the border issue to try to bring about a united Ireland. This has always been the goal of the Republic. It hasn’t gone away you know.  The UK could respond in different ways. We could attempt to change the demographic situation by encouraging more British citizens to move to Northern Ireland. Every British citizen after all has a right to live anywhere in the UK. Tax breaks could be given, jobs created. We could use education to unify the people of Northern Ireland and sever the link between religion and politics. But in the end, it has to be admitted that if the majority of Northern Irish people prefer to live in a united Ireland then the existence of the Belfast Agreement means that we can’t stop them. But what we can do is to make clear to the Taoiseach and the Dáil that if you want Northern Ireland you will have to pay for it and if there is any trouble you will have to deal with it. It will be your problem not ours.

10. We either live in a democracy or we don’t. If the UK does not properly leave the EU, why would anyone trust the result of any referendum in the UK ever again? What would prevent Parliament stopping Scotland from becoming independent even if the SNP eventually won a vote for independence? The danger is not so much that failure to leave the EU will destroy the Conservative Party, it will, it is that it will destroy all political parties, because it will destroy any sense that voting, or indeed writing about politics has a point.