IndyRef2: Extend The Franchise And Restrict Postal Voting

The Scottish Government’s recent consultation on administrative arrangements for #Indyref2 says that ‘decisions on the future of Scotland should be for those who live and work here, including all those who have chosen to make Scotland their home’. I agree. But the draft Bill doesn’t fully reflect that principle.The franchise must be extended.

The consultation paper also proposes minor changes to the rules on postal voting, to reduce the risk of fraud. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. We need to go back to sort of system where you only got a postal vote on medical grounds or if you were away from home, working for example, on polling day.

The Franchise

The consultation paper proposes that those entitled to vote should be: British citizens resident in Scotland; Commonwealth citizens resident in Scotland; Citizens of the Republic of Ireland and other EU countries resident in Scotland; Members of the House of Lords resident in Scotland; and Service/Crown personnel serving in the UK or overseas in the Armed Forces or with Her Majesty’s Government who are registered to vote in Scotland. So far, so good.

But if you hail from Norway – a country with more cultural links to Scotland than most – or Switzerland, you can’t vote, simply because those aren’t members of the EU.

Or take the example of someone from Botswana and someone else from Ivory Coast. Let’s assume they both moved to Scotland at the same time, both are doing similar jobs and paying the same amount of tax. Under the proposals in the consultation paper, the person from Botswana would be eligible to vote, but the person from Ivory Coast wouldn’t. That’s because Botswana was once a British colonial possession, and is in the Commonwealth; whereas Ivory Coast is a former French colonial possession, and isn’t in the Commonwealth.

To be consistent with the principle set out in the consultation paper, voting should also be open to anyone able to demonstrate permanent residency in Scotland for a defined period, say, three years, in addition to those already eligible to vote. A ‘permanent residency’ test would exclude people in Scotland on only a temporary basis, but would include those ‘who have chosen to make Scotland their home’.

Postal Voting

Then there’s postal voting. Richard Mawrey QC is a UK Deputy High Court Judge. He has repeatedly criticised the UK postal voting system, because he says it makes large-scale fraud possible. He should know, as he has presided over a number of trials involving electoral fraud.

Not everybody agrees with him. But lots of people do. That’s important because another referendum on independence must be both fair, and must also be seen to be fair. Almost one-fifth of the Scottish Electorate now votes by post. In the event of a narrow result, the suspicion that the outcome was the result of postal voting fraud would be extremely divisive.

There are many valid reasons why people should be able to vote by post, and they should still be allowed to do so. It used to be the case that you got a postal vote if you had a medical reason that would make going to the polling station difficult; or if you could show that you would be working away from home, for example if working offshore. That all seems reasonable.

However, the Representation of the People Act (2000) introduced postal voting ‘on demand’, i.e. you got a postal vote if you asked for it. The change was made with the perfectly laudable aim of increasing turnout. However, turnout in all four UK General Elections this century was lower than in every general election between 1945 and 1997.

And postal voting on demand seems much less reasonable. Universal suffrage was achieved in the UK only after centuries of struggle in which some people died: think of the Chartists in the early nineteenth century, or the Suffragettes in the early twentieth. Exercising one’s democratic right to determine the future of your country is not the same as popping out to the supermarket. Polling stations are open from 7.00am till 10.00pm. And they are generally within easy walking distance of where most voters live. If you are perfectly capable of attending the polling station, is it really that unreasonable to ask you to do so to exercise your precious right to vote?

We need to back to the old system, to reduce the possibility of fraud, and build public confidence in the result.

The Scottish Government’s consultation paper is available here: https://consult.scotland.gov.uk/elections-and-constitutional-development-division/draft-referendum-bill/consult_view

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THE YES CAMPAIGN CANNOT TAKE FOR GRANTED THOSE WHO VOTED ‘YES’ AND ‘LEAVE’

There’s been much talk – rightly – of the need to reach out to former ‘No’ voters who might change their minds after the Brexit result. But in the event of a second independence referendum, the ‘Yes’ campaign cannot take for granted the votes of those who voted ‘Yes’ in 2014, but ‘Leave’ in 2016. But those who did so should vote ‘Yes’ in Indyref2, even if that’s predicated on Scotland’s independence being within the EU.

In the interests of transparency, I’ll put my cards on the table. I voted ‘Yes’ and ‘Remain’. But I can understand the reasons why some yessers may have voted to quit the EU.

I used to be a Eurosceptic. I’m old enough to remember the days of the European ‘wine lakes’ and ‘butter mountains’, when the Common Agricultural Policy led to the over-production of food that was either left to rot in warehouses, or else dumped on world markets, thus impoverishing farmers in developing countries; and I know that the Common Fisheries Policy has been a disaster for Scotland’s fishing industry, particularly in the north east.

But, I voted ‘Remain’ because, on balance, the benefits of EU membership for Scotland outweigh the disbenefits. For example, funding via the EU’s Regional Selective Assistance programme has created or maintained over 6,000 jobs in Scotland that otherwise wouldn’t be there. And while the implementation of Common Fisheries Policy has been awful for Scotland’s fishermen, that’s in part because successive UK Governments have been content to use our fishing industry as a sacrificial pawn in European negotiations.

But this is neither the time nor the place to rehearse the pre-EU referendum debates. We are where we are. The question for a ‘Yes/Leave’ voter is what do we do now. What should you do if you voted ‘Leave’, but the choice in Indyref2 is a choice between the UK or European Unions?

If, like me, you are a card-carrying SNP member, the choice should be simple. Because remaining in the EU is undoubtedly our best chance of turning the 45% into a majority for ‘Yes’. And if we don’t win a post-Brexit Indyref2, that really will set back the cause of Scottish Independence for decades. Just look at Quebec.

Moreover, whatever one’s reasons for disliking the EU, we need to recognize that the EU that we knew before 23rd June simply no longer exists. The UK Brexit vote has sent shock waves through Europe, where Eurosceptic parties are gaining ground in many other member states. So one scenario would be that Brexit triggers a domino effect, Scotland gains independence by seeking to remain in the EU, and then the EU itself unravels. And if the EU does unravel, how would you feel if you’d voted ‘No’ in Indyref2 and helped keep Scotland fettered to the UK?

As it happens, I don’t think the EU will unravel, though I do think that it’s a possibility. A more likely scenario is that Europe’s leaders will undertake real reform to keep the show on the road while addressing the concerns of Eurosceptic voters across the continent.

And I do mean real reform, not the sort of fudge we’ve seen in that past, such as when it took two referendums in Denmark to ratify the Maastricht Treaty, in 1992, or when Ireland similarly needed two attempts to ratify the Nice Treaty in 2001-2002. In both cases, those countries were offered concessions in the form of various opt-outs from the treaties that had been negotiated. And they weren’t threatening to leave, merely refusing to ratify changes to previous arrangements. Brexit is a whole different ball game: it’s the UK voting to leave the EU, after already having been given some (albeit minor) concessions.

Europe’s leaders understand the need for reform. Commission Vice-President, Kristalina Georgieva, speaking on ‘Newsnight‘ on 27th June, said that the EU was facing ‘an existential threat’, and that changes were needed so that it could accommodate those countries that wanted closer integration, but also make it possible for those who want a looser form of union to have that. If Scotland decides on independence within the EU, we can then have the debate on whether we wish to be in the closer or looser form of integration; and I suspect that many Scots who voted ‘Remain’ would choose the latter.

It’s also important to recognise that, counter-intuitive though it may seem, an independent Scotland, a nation of 5 million, would carry more weight in a union of 28 sovereign states with a combined population of 500 million than it does in a United Kingdom of 60 million. Last week’s referendum demonstrated that beyond doubt: Scotland voted to remain; and even if Holyrood withholds its consent to leave the EU, we can be overruled by Westminster. In the EU, a major constitutional change requires unanimity, so a small country, be it Croatia, Estonia, or an independent Scotland, has a veto over such decisions.

If you believe in Scottish independence, but dislike the EU and voted ‘Leave’, you must vote ‘Yes’ in Indyref2, even if that means Scotland remaining in Europe.

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REPLACING TRIDENT: WHITEHALL ‘LACKS EXPERTISE’

A report from an influential House of Commons Committee, published today, further undermines the case for spending £167 billion on a replacement for Trident.

I’m not a fan of nuclear weapons, especially when they are parked 30 miles from Scotland’s largest city.

I do believe that national defence is one of the most important duties of Government. But I’m opposed to replacing Trident on practical as well as moral grounds.

For one thing, possessing a nuclear deterrent didn’t protect France from the horrific attack on Paris last week, nor the Russians from having one of their civilian airliners blown up, nor the Americans from 9/11.

Nor is the UK’s so-called ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent actually independent: the UK can’t operate it without the US. That isn’t just my view, by the way, but that of the well-known leftie and SNP activist (Have you checked that? Ed) former Conservative Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo. He was reported as saying so in the Financial Times, back in 2103 (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c569db3a-4947-11e2-9225-00144feab49a.html#axzz3s3ofyJH4) – when he also said that nuclear weapons weren’t a deterrent – comments he repeated on the BBC’s This Week programme in May this year.

We are also told that the nuclear deterrent ‘supports thousands of jobs’. Estimates vary, but the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-business-20132118) reckons that the total might be somewhere around 11,000. At £167 billion, that works out at around £15 million per job, making it the most expensive job-creation scheme not just in the UK, but also in the western spiral arm of the Galaxy.

But back to today’s report, which you can read in full here http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/defence-committee/news-parliament-2015/an-sdsr-checklist-potential-threats-report-published-15-16/. It’s from the Commons Defence Select Committee, which has a Tory majority and a Tory Chair. It’s being published ahead of the publication of the Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) on Monday. It is highly critical of the Government’s “flawed” system of grading potential threats to national security, and says that there is a “lack of expertise” in Whitehall, meaning the Government would face a “significant challenge” in assessing any new threats that arose.

In other words, and translating the committee’s polite Parliamentary language into the vernacular, the people currently determining the UK’s defence priorities, including the decision to replace Trident, are a bunch of numpties whom we shouldn’t trust to run a whelk stall.

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A Dodgy Dossier From a Partisan Professor

A widely-reported recent paper from Glasgow University claims to show that the ‘Vow’ had no impact on the outcome of the Independence Referendum. In fact, there’s little or nothing in the paper, the methodology of which is deeply flawed, to substantiate such a finding, while its lead author was a prominent ‘No’ campaigner: and academics can spin just as much as Malcolm Tucker.

That lead author is Professor Ronald MacDonald, who was a prominent campaigner for a ‘No’ vote (see, for example: http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/top-stories/ronald-macdonald-the-currency-case-for-no-1-3506544). He’s an academic, and he’s entitled to his opinion, but he’s not ‘disinterested’ or ‘neutral’; rather, he’s a partisan member of the camp that has a vested interest in claiming that the ‘vow’ had no impact – because they can then try to claim that Westminster is under no obligation to deliver on it.

Partisan authorship aside, however, the whole basis of the Professor’s paper is fundamentally flawed. It’s based on Internet search volumes, as measured by Google Trends big data, to analyse the active information demand by referendum voters. It therefore ignores those who got most or all of their information about the referendum from sources other than the Internet.

And the major flaw in his analysis is that the demographic most likely to have been influenced by the ‘Vow’ is excluded from his analysis.

The ‘Vow’ was published in a newspaper (if the Daily Record can be described as such), and widely reported on TV. Research carried out by YouGov (http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/survey-reveals-importance-media-helping-scots-make-referendum-decision) for News UK found that the most popular source of information on the referendum was television and radio with 71 per cent, closely followed by 60 per cent of Scots who relied on newspapers and their websites for the majority of their information on the independence debate. This compared to 54 per cent who said they obtained their information from social media and only 44 per cent from the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ camps directly.

Those demographic groups most likely to rely on traditional media and least likely to rely on the Internet were those that tended to vote “No’.

The Lord Ashcroft Poll conducted overnight on 18/19 September –
http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2014/09/scotland-voted/
shows that those over age 65, and especially those over 75, were those who voted ‘No’ in far larger numbers than the rest of the population. Indeed, if the over 65 vote had been ignored, ‘Yes’ would have won. While it is one poll, the pattern of the demographic breakdown of support for ‘Yes’ and No“ – i.e. men more supportive of ‘Yes’ than women,  and older voters more supportive of the Union – is entirely consistent with just about every poll conducted throughout the referendum campaign.

And guess what else? The demographic most likely to vote ‘No’ is the same as that with least access to the Internet, i.e. the ones excluded from Professor MacDonald’s research. According to Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2014 (http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/cmr/cmr14/UK_4.pdf) while 82% of adults had access to the Internet in 2014, the proportion falls to two thirds for those aged 65-74, and to a mere 32% of those aged over 75.

That alone should undermine the credibility of the report. But there’s more. As the professor himself admits in the paper, there is no evidence to show that the complex methodology he uses can be applied to voting intentions. He says: “recent studies have demonstrated that the Google trends data can help explain the dynamics of financial markets and make more accurate economic predictions. However, there is no research using Google Trends to gauge political information demand and make projections on voting results (my emphasis), which is the novelty of the present paper.” Translated into plain language, that means “we’ve put some fancy algebra in the paper to make it look impressive, but we’ve actually no basis for claiming that the methodology we are using is valid for analysing voting intentions or not”.

Furthermore, in describing his methodology, Professor MacDonald admits that it relies on a series of assumptions; and he seems very happy to dismiss out of hand anything that doesn’t fit his opinion.

For example, at one point, the paper states: “The polling results from several companies did show some gains on the ‘Yes’ side after George Osborne rejected the idea of a currency union in February 2014. Some reports claimed that the ‘Yes’ campaign had gained momentum from the currency debates. However, such claims remain to be verified.” Not only does polling evidence support the idea that the ‘Sermon on the Pound’ boosted “Yes’; but shortly after it, I spoke to a previously staunch ‘No’ Tory voter who switched to ‘Yes’ because of what she described as George Osborne’s bullying’ – and there were hundreds and thousands of similar conversations in pubs and workplaces all over Scotland. “Cannot be verified’”? Sorry, Professor, but if it waddles like a duck and goes “quack”, you don’t need a quadratic equation to tell it’s a duck.

In short, this is on several levels a deeply flawed piece of ‘research’, the alleged conclusions of which are not supported by the main body of its published ‘evidence’, written not by an unbiased academic, but by a partisan with an agenda to promote.

And in the interests of transparency, I’ll declare my own interest: I’m a long-standing SNP activist, and I’m proud to say that I voted ‘Yes’.

The full report, so you can judge for yourself, is available here: http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_392985_en.pdf

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A Lapdog, not a Watchdog

Ofcom is the broadcasting regulator. It’s just consulted on its list of ‘major parties’ for the 2015 General Election. If that sounds esoteric, it’s important, because it has a bearing on how many election broadcasts the SNP will get in relation to the other parties; and it might just have a bearing on the proposed TV debates.

I’ve just responded to the consultation paper. Do I think it will make much difference? Frankly, I don’t think so, if mine is the only response, not least because as watchdogs go, Ofcom is a teacup poodle with serious conflict-aversion issues. But it might make a difference if enough people respond in similar vein. My response is below. It’s written from an SNP perspective, but much of it could apply equally to Plaid Cymru or to the Green Party. You can access the Ofcom consultation at: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/consultations/major-parties-15/

Feel free to copy and paste or adapt. The consultation closes on 5th February.

General Comments

Ofcom’s approach to the categorization of major parties is flawed in two respects. First, the definition of ‘major party’ is drawn far too narrowly, and gives a de facto advantage to the Conservative and Labour parties and to a lesser extent to the Liberal Democrats. Second, Ofcom’s approach to the proposed TV debates represents an abdication of its duty to promote balance in broadcasters’ treatment of various parties in the General Election.

Too Narrow a Definition of Major Party

It is perfectly reasonable that broadcasters should not be required to give equal weighting to ‘fringe’ or ‘joke’ parties as they do to parties that have some reasonable prospect of participating in government – whether holding a majority, being part of a coalition, or maintaining a minority government through a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement. However, Ofcom’s approach to the categorization of ‘major parties’ as set out in the consultation paper is drawn far too narrowly, and gives a de facto advantage to the Conservative and Labour parties and to a lesser extent to the Liberal Democrats.

Giving so much weight to past performance over two electoral cycles, and hence giving ensuring more broadcasting airtime to the largest parties, will inevitably tend to lead to a perpetuation of the status quo.

It is axiomatic in polling on virtually any subject at any time that increased familiarity almost always leads to greater favourability. In the case of Westminster elections, under the ’first past the post’ system this is likely to be particularly the case. Not only will the policies and arguments of smaller parties get less exposure, but their credibility will be damaged by not being seen as serious contenders – a significant drawback in a system where many voters will understand that votes for ‘fringe’ parties are normally ‘wasted’ votes. The approach set out in the consultation paper in effect treats parties such as the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP – all or any of which could plausibly affect the composition of the next government – as equivalent to the ‘Standing at the Back Dressed Stupidly and Looking Stupid Party’.

Ofcom would not, in its role as a competition regulator, adopt an approach that favoured incumbents over challengers – if it did it would be in breach of its statutory obligations and would not be fit for purpose. Why, then, should it adopt such an approach n its assessment of major parties?

TV Debates

In relation to the proposed TV debates, I note that Ofcom’s position, as set out in paragraph 2.6 of the consultation paper is that “Ofcom has no role in determining the structure, format and style of any broadcast General Election debates that might take place in future. Rather, our concern would be whether any election debates comply with the rules in relation to due impartiality and elections in Sections Five and Six of the Code once they have been broadcast”. This is an absurd position for a regulator to take.

The debates, if they happen, will be several hours of prime-time coverage likely to be watched by tens of millions of people – in contrast to PEBs, which for many viewers will simply be a cue to take a break from the TV to put the kettle on. The participants will effectively get free airtime worth millions of pounds of advertising, and the parties excluded will be put at a massive and obvious disadvantage in the election. This approach to the proposed TV debates represents an abdication of its duty to promote balance in broadcasters’ treatment of various parties in the General Election.

Equally absurd is the position that Ofcom will only assess whether the election debates comply with the rules in relation to due impartiality and elections once they have been broadcast. The technical term for such an approach is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. It is akin to the Bank of England or Financial Conduct Authority saying that it would only investigate the behaviour of a bank after the bank had collapsed. For a regulator to adopt such a position is nothing short of negligent.

Question 1: Please provide your views on:

a) The evidence of current support laid out in Annex 2; and
b) Whether there is any other relevant evidence which you consider Ofcom should take into account for the purposes of the 2015 review of the list of major parties.

The evidence of current support laid out in Annex 2 is flawed in a number of respects. The evidence base and methodology is such that it seriously and significantly underestimates the current level of support for the Scottish national Party, which should be treated as a ‘major party’ on a UK-wide basis.(Please see my answer to Q2 for further detail on this point.)

The timescale used for opinion polling data seriously underestimates the level of support for the SNP. Figure 25 puts the average support during 2014 for the SNP at 34.9%. However, closer inspection of Figure 25 also shows clearly that support for the party, prior to September 2014 never exceeded 34%; and that since September 2014, support for the party has never been lower than 34%, has almost always exceeded 40%, and has been as high as 52.0%. According to the noted psephologist, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, seven opinion polls in Scotland in recent months put the SNP on average at 46%. If that swing were to be replicated across Scotland as a whole, the SNP would win 52 of the 59 seats in Scotland. Even if it accepted that might be an optimistic scenario, it seems highly improbable that the SNP vote on may 7th will be significantly lower than it is now, and is likely to lead to the party gaining a substantial number of seats.

A further flaw is that Annex 2 does not take into account party membership numbers. One specific effect of this is to underestimate the support enjoyed by the SNP. SNP membership now stands at over 90,000 – more than that of the Liberal Democrats and UKIP combined, on a UK-wide basis. And while most SNP members live in Scotland, the party has active members throughout the UK, with branches as far afield as Cornwall and London.

Another serious omission in Annex 2 is the complete omission of any reference to the referendum on Scottish independence held on 18th September 2014. The referendum was not, of course, about support for a particular party, but rather a binary, yes/no choice. That means assessing its importance in relation to the assessment of ‘major parties’ is less than straightforward. However, just because something is less than straightforward to measure is no excuse for not seeking to measure it: it used to be the case that the efficiency of NHS hospitals was measured in terms of ‘finished patient episodes’ (i.e. how many patients were treated – easy to measure) rather than in terms of outcomes (i.e. to what extent did the patients have enhanced quality of life as a result of their treatment – harder to measure).

Many of those who voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum were not necessarily SNP supporters, but rather supporter of other parties. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that many will vote SNP in the 2015 Westminster General Election, a first past the post vote, not least to maximize the chances of securing the ‘Home Rule’ promised by the No Campaign in the so-called ‘Vow’ immediately before the referendum.

There is no credible political commentator who does not regard the independence referendum as representing anything other than a massive, tectonic shift in the politics of Scotland. For Ofcom to ignore it in its assessment of major parties simply because it is difficult to quantify the impact directly would be negligent in the extreme.

Question 2: Do you agree with our assessment in relation to each of:

a) The existing major parties;
b) Traditional Unionist Voice in Northern Ireland;
c) The Green Party (including the Scottish Green Party); and
d) UKIP?

Please provide reasons for your views.

For the reasons set out in answer to Q1 and in my general comments, above, the SNP should be treated as a UK-wide major party; and hence should be given equal billing in the proposed TV debates, and at least as many GB-wide PEBs as the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat parties.

Based on current polling data, the SNP is likely to have more seats than the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 General Election and has a more than reasonable prospect of participating in government, either as part of a coalition, or maintaining a minority government through a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement.

Even accepting that the SNP is only likely to win seats in Scotland, it seems reasonable that voters elsewhere in the UK ought to have a right to hear the views of a party that could well have the decisive say in which party forms the UK Government, as this might affect how they cast their vote, not least given the fact that the SNP has categorically ruled out supporting a Conservative administration. Furthermore, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the SNP might field candidates in England or Wales.

Question 3: Do you agree with the proposed amendment to Rule 9 of the PPRB Rules Procedures outlined in paragraph 3.7 above? Please provide reasons for your views.

No comment

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I’m A Proud Scot, But…

I’m a proud Scot, but…that’s not the only – or maybe even the main – reason I’ll be voting ‘Yes’ on 18th September.  That’s because I’ll be voting for independence with my head, as well as with my heart.

I suppose that helps me understand why lots of folk who hail from France, or India, or Poland will also be voting ‘Yes’. But I can’t presume to speak for them, only for myself. So here are my reasons.

 Let’s get the sentimental stuff out of the way first. I said I was a ‘proud Scot’. As it happens, I was born in, grew up in, and have spent most of my life in England. I moved to Edinburgh a few years back and now live in Aberdeen, so some might consider me a ‘New Scot’. But I’ve a vague childhood memory of my Dad (who had an English accent) and my Granddad cheering as they watched the TV, as Peter Brown kicked a last-minute goal to enable Scotland to beat England at Twickenham in 1971. And I grew up in a house where Scotland was referred to as ‘home’; where the history books told of the exploits of The Bruce and the Black Douglas; and where both my grandfathers, in their photos on the mantelpiece, were pictured in their kilts.

So I could have played rugby of football for England or for Scotland: all that stopped me was the minor matter of a complete lack of any athletic ability or any talent in either. But I’ve always thought of myself as Scots, and so I guess I was always emotionally pre-disposed to support the idea of an independent Scotland.

But I grew up in England, remember, and I knew – or thought I knew – that the idea of Scottish independence was a nostalgic, romantic dream, that couldn’t work in practice. After all, Scotland was subsidized by the rest of the UK; her industries were in terminal decline; overall public spending per head was higher than in England; widespread social and economic deprivation in Greater Glasgow entailed huge welfare spending that an independent Scotland simply couldn’t support; and, yes, though the oil money would help, the oil would soon – maybe around the year 2000 – run out. At least that’s what the newspapers said.

So what changed?

Well, for one thing, I came to work on a project to do with attracting inward investment to Scotland. That meant I had to take a serious look at the Scottish economy, and at the policy levers at Holyrood’s disposal to encourage investment.

And I soon realized that while public spending per capita is higher in Scotland than in England, Scotland’s contribution to total UK taxes is higher still; in effect, if there’s any subsidizing going on, it’s Scotland that is subsidizing the rest of the UK, not vice-versa. The statistics on this are pretty clear: last year, for example, Scotland, which has 8.4% of the UK population, got 9.3% of UK public spending, but contributed 9.9% of UK taxes. That pattern wasn’t a one-off: it’s been happening for years. As for welfare spending, it turns out that, as a percentage of GDP, Scotland spends less than England (in 2012, welfare spending in Scotland was 14.4% of GDP, compared to 15.9% in England). And sure, the oil will run out eventually, but not for many decades. Indeed, it’s reckoned that there is around 24 billion barrels of reserves, worth around £1.5 trillion, left under the North Sea. Scotland also has 25% of the offshore wind and tidal energy potential in the whole of Europe – so we’ll be an energy-rich country, in perpetuity.

That didn’t sound much like it added up to a country that was ‘too wee’ and ‘too poor’ to be independent.

As for the levers available to Scottish Government, it simply doesn’t have control over many of the policy and regulatory issues that would attract firms to invest in Scotland. Many of these powers remain reserved to Westminster. So Scottish Government attempting to attract inward investment, is a bit like trying to play an 18-hole round of golf with only three clubs in your bag. Worse still, in a whole host of areas – as diverse as energy regulation to immigration policy – Scotland was and is actively disadvantaged by being saddled with one-size-fits-all regulations that might make sense for the southern half of England, but are downright perverse in a Scottish context.

Maybe this independence malarkey wasn’t as crazy as all that after all.

But I still had reservations. I’ve worked largely in the private sector. And while I like to think of myself as a progressive, socially-liberal kind of guy, I am also pro-business and pro-enterprise; and I’d opt for Adam Smith over Karl Marx any day. And I was told that these SNP types were a bunch of crypto-Trotskyite, swivel-eyed loons, determined to turn Scotland into somewhere like – whisper it now – Scandinavia! To some people in business, mention of ‘the Scandinavian model’ conjures up something akin to the wild lands north of The Wall, in ‘Game of Thrones’. But when I looked into things, it turned out that the SNP had a raft of pretty sensible, pro enterprise policies, such as cutting the rate of Corporation Tax, and investing in infrastructure. And all the Nordic countries also regularly feature in the top ten in the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index, which ranks countries in terms of how well they foster enterprise. So, in fact, Scandinavia seems rather a good place to be doing business, and isn’t so scary at all.

So by now I’m thinking that independence sounds a pretty attractive scenario.

Of course, independence isn’t just about the economy. Scotland shares long-standing cultural and historic ties with the rest of the UK. What about those? And do I really want to make my English relatives ‘foreign’? 

I consider Shakespeare, and the paintings of Turner, and the music of Tallis or the Beatles, to be part of my cultural heritage. But I figured I wouldn’t lose that after a ‘Yes’ vote, because I also regard Tacitus, and Renoir, and Chopin and Abba as part of my cultural heritage; and that doesn’t mean I feel the need to have an Italian, French, Polish or Swedish passport. And I’ll be no less British when Scotland is independent than a Norwegian became less Scandinavian when Norway secured its independence from Sweden, a hundred years ago, or thereabouts. As for my English relatives, my ties to them won’t be any the less if Scotland and the rest of the UK are no longer part of the same sovereign state – any more than I love my Canadian relatives less because Scotland and Canada aren’t in a political union.

And then we had the referendum campaign.

Now, this may sound strange, but if I know for a fact that someone is lying to me, and doing so in a way that insults my intelligence, and it seems as though that same person is also trying to bully me, I might not be altogether wholly receptive to their arguments. Dear ‘Project Fear’, if ever I’d had any doubts about the case for independence, thank you for removing them.

  •  “Independence will mean higher mobile phone bills, because we’ll have international roaming charges”. That was what UK Government said after the relevant European Commissioner had already announced that such charges would be abolished by 2016. Did UK Government know what the Commission had said, and were lying by omission, or didn’t they know, and were simply incompetent.
  •  “You won’t be able to watch Dr Who if you’re independent”. Maria Miller MP said that, and I leave it to you, dear reader, to judge as to her credibility. But, more importantly, since the BBC sells Dr Who to around 90 countries round the world, is it remotely credible that they’d choose not to sell it to an independent Scotland? 
  • A vote for independence would mean walking away from the pound”. Let’s be clear on this one. RoUK could refuse a formal currency union. Whether they’d be wise to do so is another matter entirely. But they couldn’t stop Scotland using Sterling because IT’S AN INTERNATIONALLY TRADABLE CURRENCY, but both Ed Balls and George Osborne have said, in terms, that we couldn’t use the pound. Are Ed and Gideon economically illiterate, or liars, or do they simply take us for fools? Answers on a postcard, please. 
  • And then we had Lord Robertson’s warnings that a ‘Yes’ vote would be ‘cataclysmic’, and would be welcomed by the ‘forces of darkness’ throughout the world. I’m just a tiny bit sceptical that independence would, swiftly and inevitably, be followed by invasion, with fire and sword, by hordes of Vandals, Vikings, Visigoths, Dothraki Khalasars, and assorted flesh-eating zombies.

What’s also really got my goat is the way Unionist politicians –of whatever party – say one thing to an English audience, and say the exact opposite to a Scottish one, and THINK WE WON’T NOTICE. 

  • Take Corporation Tax, for example. The Scottish Government says it intends to cut the rate. We’re told that’s economic folly, and would lead to a ‘race to the bottom’, and to tax competition, which is a BAD THING. Gordon Brown and George Osborne have both, as UK Chancellors, cut the rate of Corporation Tax. Funnily enough, in their budget speeches when they announced these cuts, they said it was a good thing. 
  • Then there’s the issue of more powers for Holyrood if we vote ‘no’. ‘Better Together’ tells Scots that additional powers are ‘guaranteed’ while Johann Lamont was simultaneously telling the Northern Echo that people in the North East of England shouldn’t believe talk of more powers for Scotland, because that was just ‘propaganda’. 
  • And then there’s the oil again. When David Cameron talks to a non-Scottish audience, the oil is going to last for years, and each new discovery is an enormous  boon to the UK economy. But when he talks to a Scottish audience, the oil will run out soon, and the income is ‘volatile’, and we’d be ‘over-reliant’ on it – despite the fact that oil revenues in an independent Scotland would account for half of their contribution to Norway’s economy.

So by now, you’ll have realized that I ‘d become more than a little annoyed at what the ‘Better Together’ campaign had been telling me. It wasn’t the only thing that annoyed me, however. My Mum was from Glasgow. So it angers me, too, that in a resource-rich, First World country, male life expectancy in parts of that city is worse than it is in North Korea; and some of the money that’s been spent on Crossrail, or the Millennium Dome, or the London Olympics might have been better spent on fixing that.

But, at the end of the day, being a proud Scot, or being angry or annoyed isn’t, at least for me, the only reason to vote ‘Yes’. I’ve decided to do so for positive reasons.

Scotland is a land blessed with vast natural resources; with a diverse, well-balanced economy and comparative advantage in a range of industries – tourism, food and drink, life sciences, energy, and financial services. And we have more highly ranked universities than the UK, the US, or pretty much any other country in Europe. That’s a list of advantages that the vast majority of independent countries round the world would give their right arm for. 

Adam Smith once wrote that “the real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations”. The real tragedy for Scotland would be if we vote ‘no’ because too many of us don’t dare to aspire to a better future.

That’s why – and not just for my Mum and Dad – I’m voting ‘Yes’.

 

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FINANCIAL SERVICES COMPENSATION SCHEMES: A PRIMER

 In an independent Scotland, depositors in banks would enjoy exactly the same sort of protection in the event of a bank collapse as they do now in the UK. That is a statement of the obvious. I’m only bothering to post a blog about it now in response to a story by Eddie Barnes and Tom Peterkin, and headlined ‘Scottish independence must cover risk to savers’, published in Scotland on Sunday on 26th May. You can see the article here: http://www.scotsman.com/scotland-on-sunday/scottish-independence-must-cover-risk-to-savers-1-2944827

For anyone who knows much about financial services regulation, the Scotland on Sunday piece certainly doesn’t merit the description of ‘news’; but it might raise doubts over independence in the minds of less well-informed readers. In fact, it’s an anti-independence scare story that shouldn’t have been given house room in what purports to be a serious newspaper.

The thrust of the article was that bank account deposits would be at risk in an independent Scotland unless a new government set up its own guarantee scheme; that this ‘highlighted a further financial challenge an independent Scotland would face’; and that the source of this ‘warning’ had come from  ‘the head of the UK’s most influential financial compensation body’. Let’s look at these points in turn.

It’s actually perfectly true to say that bank account deposits would be at risk in an independent Scotland, unless a new government set up its own guarantee scheme: but only in the sense that it’s also true to say that there would be a risk of plane crashes if we didn’t have an air traffic control system, or an increased risk of crime if we didn’t have a police force.  That isn’t news; it’s simply a statement of the bleeding obvious. All developed economies, and many developing ones, have such schemes.  At least the article had the good grace to quote a Scottish Government source as saying that an independent Scotland will have a deposit guarantee scheme, but it’s odd that Scotland on Sunday had to ask the question in the first place.

But what about the ‘further financial challenge an independent Scotland would face’, given that the article also says that EU directives are clear that member states ‘must be able to finance those (compensation) arrangements’? Well, there’s no problem there. The existing UK Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) isn’t funded by the taxpayer, but is rather funded by levies on banks and other financial services firms. Each firm funds the scheme in proportion to the number of customers it has. A Scottish scheme could be funded in exactly the same way, so the money that banks currently pay into the UK scheme in respect of their Scottish customers would simply instead be paid into a new Scottish scheme. That’s not rocket science. And, en passant, a new Scottish scheme would have a claim on a proportion of any assets held by the UK scheme.

And now let’s look at the apparent source for many of the quotes in the article, a certain Mark Neale, ‘head of the UK’s most influential financial compensation body’. To the uninitiated, this might sound like some objective, independent third party – and a pretty heavy hitter at that. Call me naive, but I’d have thought that two senior, experienced journalists on ‘Scotland’s national newspaper’ would have known, or could least have checked to spot that the Financial Services Compensation Scheme is the UK’s only such body. Now I don’t know Mark Neale and have nothing against him personally, but as there’s only one such organization in the UK, Scotland on Sunday could equally have described him as ‘head of the UK’s least influential financial compensation body’. And as for his apparent independent, third party status, the FSCS website will tell you that although it’s ‘impartial and independent’, dig a bit deeper, and you’ll also see that under the Financial Services & Markets Act 2000 (FSMA), the UK regulators (FCA and PRA) appoints its directors, and that ‘FSCS is independent from the UK regulators, although accountable to it and ultimately to the Treasury’. So rather than being some entirely objective third-party commentator, Mr. Neale is de facto a UK civil servant, whose job it is to carry out the orders of the UK Chancellor. All I can say to that is: ‘McCrone’.

There are lots of questions that people wondering how to vote in 2014 should ask themselves. “Will my savings be safe in the event of a bank collapse?” isn’t one of them.

And for those wanting to do some further reading, the UK FSCS website can be found here: http://www.fscs.org.uk/

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