Complete Your Census!

“Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies. With you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father’s household.” – The Bible, Numbers, 1, 2-5

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

If you haven’t done so already, please compete and submit your census. If you have already done so, thank you – and please encourage your friends and family to submit theirs if they haven’t.

There are many reasons to ensure that you do – not least because it’s a legal obligation and should be considered as much a part of your civic duty as paying taxes, voting and serving on a jury. It is by far and away the most important statistical exercise conducted by our nation and goes a long way towards informing public policy directly and helping to correct and anchor other forms of data gathering. I make this plea as an informant of public policy and an unabashed stats geek. Neither I nor Common Weal have been paid by the Scottish Government to write this article (we wouldn’t accept such a payment even if it was offered). They haven’t even asked us to write this. We’re doing this because we understand how important it is that it gets done properly. Our own ability to create and analyse policy depends on access to high quality, accurate data and the census is one of the most important tools in our box of facts and information.

Scotland's Census

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Building Tomorrows

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ― Margaret Mead

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

I’ve talked before about how proud I am of our Care Reform Working Group. Two years ago when the impact of the pandemic on Scottish care homes highlighted previous systemic failings in the care sector, it became clear across Scotland that the recovery from the pandemic should include as radical a reform of care as WWII and the Beveridge Report ended up being for health. We need a National Care Service. To that end, a group of some of the best minds and practitioners in the sector came together into our group and began to work on what that should look like.

Care Reform Group celebrate with dinner

(Image above: Left to Right: Des, Carmen, Colin, Marion, Craig, Nick, Mark, Kathy and Neil)

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Democracy on your Doorstep

“When you are in local government, you are on the ground, and you are looking into the eyes and hearts of the people you are there to serve. It teaches you to listen; it teaches you to be expansive in the people with whom you talk to, and I think that that engagement gives you political judgment.” – Valerie Jarrett

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

Scotland is now in full campaign mode for our Local Authority elections. There will be leaflets stuffed through letterboxes. There will be photos of smiling campaigners with their Great Responses At The Doors. There will be enticements and blame games, celebrations of political records and promises of what will absolutely, definitely come your way if you only vote for one candidate or another.

For a first time or an inexperienced voter, this can be a confusing time – especially when various parties are all telling you to vote in a particular way. If you do happen to be a first time voter and would like to know how the voting system works in this election and how your vote translates into seats then I have written a political party neutral guide over on my personal blog here. I’m also in the process of collecting as many party manifestos as I can here – not as an endorsement of any them but to make it easier to compare and contrast all of them.

I’m proud of my own push for elected office five years ago and I really think it’s a thing that as many people as possible should do and should be able to do at least once. Even if you don’t win (as I didn’t), there’s a certain rite of passage to it and it can act as a window into a world that would otherwise be even more closed off and opaque that it currently is. The more people who are directly  involved in politics, the less the sector is able to close itself off into a clique who act only for themselves.

There’s another barrier in Scotland that acts to prevent people getting involved in the politics of the country and that’s Scotland’s abnormally centralised democracy. What we’re right now calling our “Local” elections are anything but. That lack of democracy is not just a barrier to politics getting done but also a barrier to people (especially people with young families or accessibility needs) from getting involved in politics – if folk are barred from making decisions that affect them, they will always come off the worst for it.

In most countries in Europe there are up to four tiers of Government. The largest you could call “National” or “Federal”, below that you’ll find some kind of “State” level government, then a “Regional” government and finally, the most local of all, a “local” or “municipal” government. These lowest tiers of government are often extremely small. Rarely larger than a whole town or a collection of villages but sometimes as small as a single hamlet – the smallest municipality in Germany is the island of Gröde in Germany with a population of just seven people.

In Scotland, there are effectively three tiers of government that exercise power over our lives and communities. Being a unitary state, the “National” government is the UK Parliament in Westminster. The devolved Scottish Parliament is the closest we have to a “State” Government – for the important differences in parity, power and esteem between a devolved government and a true state government, see my paper on UK Federalism here. Below this, we have our “Local” Authorities – many of which are larger in geography and/or population than some small European countries. Below this, we have effectively nothing. Even many English parish councils are more powerful. We do have a statutory right to Community Councils and don’t get me wrong, the places that do have functioning and effective Community Councils do see good work come out of them but they are not a substitute for municipal government.  For a start, these councils have next to no actual power and effectively no budget. This lack of power has led to an ossification in many places where the council has become dysfunctional and a place where small fish exercise their control over even smaller ponds. Worse, across about half of Scotland, these community councils don’t exist at all. This includes my own village where a suggestion a few years ago to the local community group that we should form one was met with a horrified, despairing reaction of “but that means we might have to have elections”.

My wife and her family are German so their example is the one closest to me in terms of comparative experience. My Schwiegervater lives, geopolitically, in a very similar place to us in Scotland. We both live in a village (ours with about 2,000 people; his about 700), near a slightly larger town (ours with about 15,000 people; his about 30,000) and within a reasonable commute of a major city of about a million-ish people (Glasgow for us, Cologne for him). Above that, our “State” populations diverge somewhat – North Rhine-Westphalia has a population of about 17 million compared to Scotland’s 5.4-ish million. Then, of course, Germany is a little larger than the UK with populations of 83 million and 67 million respectively.

Now, comparing the respective power of each of these government tiers is inevitably tricky. Absolute or even per-capita spends don’t always tell the full story – for example, German public spending per capita is significantly lower than UK public spend per capita and a good chunk of the difference appears to lie in the fact that German healthcare is largely privatised. What may be a slightly better way of looking at things is to examine where public spending is controlled as a percentage of overall budgets. This line of reasoning led me down a rabbit hole of trying to track down, translate and then read piles of German municipal budget records. It’s about as fun as you can imagine (for a stats geek…quite a lot!). It also led me to speaking about that journey in the keynote speech to the Scottish Community Development Network at the tail end of last year and which you can watch below:

Scottish Community Development Network

What we find in Scotland is that spending is incredibly centralised. About 84% of public spending in (or on behalf of) Scotland for “me” in my area is controlled by either the UK or Scottish Government. The remaining 14% is controlled by my “local” authority in South Lanarkshire – a region that stretches from the outskirts of Glasgow, through the urban Central Belt of Hamilton and East Kilbride down through rural Clydesdale till it meets the Borders.

As I mentioned above, I don’t have a Community Council in my village but even if I did, they wouldn’t control any public budgets to speak of.

Public Spending in Scotland
Public Spending in Germany

Contrast this with Germany where the Federal Government isn’t even the “most powerful” tier of government in terms of spending on my father-in-law’s public services and between them and the state government in North Rhine-Westphalia only account for only about 70% of total public spending. Cologne’s regional government is significantly less powerful than South Lanarkshire at about 10% of total spending but look at the difference in spending from a local level. Almost one public euro in every five is spent directly by the local municipal council that, in his area, covers the local town and its surrounding villages. As an interesting aside, I also discovered that our two regions have a public Participatory Budgeting scheme and Cologne’s has been praised as an example to look at in European democratic circles. However, on a per capita basis it is only a fraction of the size of South Lanarkshire’s own PB scheme. This could be a subject for another time but I wonder if the comparative strength of German local government means that it simply doesn’t need such ad hoc funding streams to fill in the gaps.

Common Weal has already published a blueprint for local government reform in Scotland that would restore some form of localism – our Development Councils take the best of what our Community Councils have to offer but expand, improve and empower them and the citizens of the community who would control them. They would, yes, be based on a model of drawing powers down from Local Authorities but that should preclude a wider discussion about devolving powers from elsewhere. The example of Germany shows that if Scotland does decide to restore a form of truly local government then it cannot be a case solely of devolving powers from regional government to local but should involve a wholesale view of where powers should lie across the board. I am a big believer in subsidiarity which means that powers shouldn’t be devolved down from above at all. Instead, all power should be presumed to lie with the municipal government and only devolved upwards to a higher level when a compelling case is made to do so.

And, of course, while I’ve discussed powers of public spending here I haven’t touched at all powers of tax and revenue raising. The same principles should apply here too and local councils should be granted much more in the way of ability to fund its own programmes (balanced, of course, by some kind of levelling mechanism between richer and poorer regions). The irony of the Scottish Government right now is that it is quick (though correct) to complain that its own powers and own funding avenues are too limited and too tightly controlled by the government above it but then treats the government below it in almost exactly the same way with even the one major tax power in the hands of Local Authorities – Council Tax – tied up just as tightly and too often used as leverage against our councils.

As we go and vote in our “local” elections this year we have to remember that the way Scotland is run is very far from what our neighbours in Europe would call normal. Campaigns for this kind of democratic reform in Scotland are not coming from a place of “radical transformation”. We’re already the outlier in a continent where democracy starts at your doorstep. It’s the country we deserve too. Creating it merely requires those who currently grip tightly to their reigns of power – at all levels above the local – let go a little and trust us to run ourselves. For those of us in the independence movement, this is already one of the most compelling arguments in favour of our national cause. Scotland deserves to be a normal country and that starts with allowing us to make decisions right here, on our doorsteps.

TCG Logo 2019

Scottish Local Elections 2022:- The Manifestos

“The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” – Sydney J. Harris

Scotland is now in full campaign mode for the Local Authority Elections so for the next few weeks we can all expect to be bombarded with messages and campaign promises. However, it can often be quite difficult to find those promises after the day they are made – things move too fast in the world of politics and “old news” drops almost faster than new headlines can. In all truth, political party websites can also be hard to navigate and it can take quite a bit of time to find just one manifesto from one party – never mind enough to properly decide who should get your vote.

In this post I shall repeat the service I provided during the Scottish Parliamentary Elections last year by collecting as many of the party manifestos into one place as I can. If, however, you’d like some more basic information than that – such as how to vote in this election and how your vote is counted and translated into elected politicians, then see my other Local Election post here.

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(Source: NASA)

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How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the 2022 Scottish Local Authority Elections

Disclosure and Disclaimer: Although I am politically active, this guide is intended to be objective and politically neutral. This is a guide on how to vote, not a blog trying to convince you to vote for or against any particular person or party.

Introduction

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(2017 local authority election results map. Source: Wikipedia)

On May 5th, Scotland will once again go to the polls to elect councillors to our Local Authorities. This election will take place simultaneously with local authority elections in England and Wales along with elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Scotland is presently organised into 32 local authorities commonly called councils split into smaller sub-units known as wards. These councils are elected every five year under the proportional representation voting system known as Single Transferrable Vote, or STV. The last election was in 2017.

As with elections everywhere, there will be people looking at this election as their first opportunity to vote and if you are one of them, this guide is aimed mainly at you. You can read previous similar guides to other elections in Scotland since I started this blog behind the links covering the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Elections, the 2017 UK General Elections, the 2017 Scottish Local Authority Elections, the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections, the 2019 UK General Elections, and the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary Elections.

This will be the second election in Scotland employing our expanded electoral franchise. There are no longer any citizenship tests involved in eligibility to vote. With very few exceptions, all that is required is that you are (or will be on May 5th) aged 16+, have permanent leave to reside in Scotland and are not currently serving a prison sentence of more than 12 months. The relatively short time since the expansion of the franchise means that it will not just be 16 year olds who can vote for the first time. It’s very possible that you are now able to vote where you were not able to in the last local election in 2017. Whoever ever you are, whomever you plan to vote for, it is important that you take this chance to exercise your democratic right and power. If you want to, but you’re not sure how – this guide is for you.

Step One:- Registering to vote

You cannot vote in this election unless you are registered to vote. It is also important to note that there is a deadline for registrations. You cannot just turn up at the Polling Place and register “on the day” as is possible in some places like the USA.

The deadline for this election is 11:59pm on the 18th of April which means that as of the posting of this article, you have only a few days left to do this.

You can register to vote HERE.

In order to be eligible to register you must meet several criteria. As noted above, the primary ones are that you are or will be aged 16 or more on May 6th 2021 and that you are a permanent resident of the UK living in Scotland. The full list of criteria for voting eligibility can be found here.

Once you have registered to vote you will remain registered until certain of your circumstances change (such as your address) so if you have already registered for a previous election then you should be registered for this one too assuming you are eligible.

Step Two:- Deciding how to vote

Not who to vote for – we’ll get to that – this is on deciding how you will actually cast your vote. The majority of voters do so in person at their designated polling place but some will want to do so by post or via a proxy (where you nominate someone to go to the polling place for you). If you wish to apply for a postal vote you can do so here but be aware that the application must by at your local electoral office no later than April 19th. Information on proxy voting can be found here.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these methods. Accessibility being the main advantage for postal and proxy voting – you may have many reasons why there may be a barrier to you going to your polling place on the day from personal reasons through bad weather or concerns about Covid (polling places are likely to have mitigation measures in place against this as guided by the Government). On the other hand, voting in person on the day has a sense of solidarity to it that is hard to match and as postal votes are often cast days or weeks ahead of the vote there is a chance that something could happen during the political campaign that means your decision when casting the postal vote is different compared to how you would vote on May 5th.

However, there is no “right” way from these options. That you cast your vote is far more important than how you do it.

If you do choose to vote in person you will receive (or may already have received) a card similar to the one below

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On the rear of this card there will be detailed instructions on how to vote, how to apply for postal or proxy votes (including how to do so in an emergency) as well as contact details for further information if you need it.

You do not need to bring this card with you when you vote but it can help to speed up the process, particularly at busy times. The agents at the polling place will be able to help direct you to the right station to cast your vote.

Step Three:- Deciding who to vote for.

As I said at the start of this article, this blog is not here to try to persuade you to vote for any particular person or party but you will have to make that choice as you come to cast your vote. The election campaign is in full swing and you are likely to have already been bombarded with leaflets, news articles and party manifestos. There are a lot of factors involved in this election and a good number of candidates and parties to choose from. No guide can be completely exhaustive but in a separate blog post I’ll try to link to as many of the party manifestos as I can though we also have to be aware that there may be local issues of significant importance to your community that don’t factor into those national campaigns and there may be minor parties or independent candidates in your area who have their own priorities or goals.

One useful resource is this one by Who Can I Vote For. If you enter your postcode, it will tell you your ward and local authority as well as which candidates you will have the opportunity to vote for.

Step Four:- Casting your vote

STV is not the easiest voting system to understand – harder even than the AMS system used in the Scottish elections. In principle, it’s simple to work out how to cast your vote but it’s a lot harder to work out how your vote translates into the final results. We’ll focus on the easy bit first.

When you cast your vote – either in person or by post – you’ll be presented with a ballot paper that looks a little like the one below.

ballot

The candidates will be listed in alphabetical order by surname with their home address* and their party affiliation, if any, underneath. Also present may be a party logo or a slogan representing a core issue of the candidate/party.

One point to consider is that you are not strictly voting for a political party in this election (despite how most of the parties present things in their campaigns). Instead, you are voting for people. These people may or may not be members of parties (and their entry will indicate this) and they may be more or less likely to follow that party’s line rather than their own (or vice versa). There may also be more than one candidate on your ballot paper who belong to the same political party. This information may factor into your choice of vote.

To actually vote is slightly different from most of the other elections in Scotland. Unlike, say, the UK General Election you do not simply mark one box on the ballot paper with an X. Instead you RANK the candidates in order of preference using a discrete number for each – 1,2,3, etc.

You may not give two or more candidates “equal” rank. You do not need to rank every candidate. Once you get to the point where you have no preference amongst the remaining candidates, you may leave their boxes blank. This is sometimes known as “vote till ye boak”. Do not make any other marks on the ballot paper as this may result in your vote being invalidated and rejected. (This said, there is a fine tradition of expressing a protest against all candidates or against the election as a whole by deliberately spoiling one’s ballot – this is a much stronger form of protest than not voting at all)

Once completed your ballot paper may look something like this:

ballot filled

Note: Preferences listed here are for illustration only and do not represent an endorsement, recommendation or author’s personal preference.

Once you’ve dropped your completed ballot into the box or sent it away via your postal ballot, that’s it. Simple. The seats are then allocated out such that the candidates elected are the ones deemed highest ranked by the largest number of people.

* In previous LA elections (such as the one from which the example ballot paper came from), all candidates had to provide their current address on the ballot paper – effectively making where they lived a matter for the public domain. From 2022 onwards, their full address will only be printed if they live outwith the constituency in which they are standing.

The Hard Bit: Counting the Votes

Here comes the tricky part. Counting the votes and translating them to seats. This is a far more mathematical exercise than the FPTP system used in the UK elections (which is trivial in that the person with the most votes wins the seats, the party with the most seats (generally) wins the government) and more complicated even the d’Hondt system used in Scotland and the EU elections (which can be tabulated with a pen and paper if you have to). If you’re reading this on the front page of the blog and want to delve into this maths, then click below to unfold. If not, I hope this has been useful and good luck to your chosen candidate(s) in May. If you’re feeling particularly brave or interested, please click the Continue Reading button below. Even if you do, feel free to skip to the final section where I talk about some voting strategies.

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Wasted Opportunities

“If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, designed or removed from production.” – Pete Seeger

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

Like many of us, I try my best to do right by the waste my lifestyle inevitably produces. I try to shop responsibly to minimise the air miles my food racks up. I try to avoid purchasing anything that produces more waste than it must. I try to reuse and repair as much as I can (Ok, so my wife is better at repairing things than I am but still…). And I try to separate my waste into the appropriate bins when the time comes to throw things away. But I’m becoming increasingly exasperated with the limits of this. I can see the results in my bins just before they go out for collection which still contain far too much in the way of un-recyclable plastics and other materials.

So I was genuinely interested when Tesco announced that it was going to start collecting a lot of these “soft plastics” at its stores for recycling. Especially as it included a lot of hard to recycle products like crisp packets and clingfilm wraps. When they installed a collection bin at my local supermarket I applauded it. It’s a good idea – or at least it would have been if it had worked.

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Council Tax: Running Away From Reform

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

As the local elections loom, Scottish voters should be considering not just which candidates or parties we vote for in those election but also what we expect them to do with the power we loan them with that vote. Party manifestos are beginning to be launched so, as with the Scottish Parliamentary Elections last year, I’ll do my best to collect as many of them as I can in one place (do email me if you find one I might miss, such as from the smaller parties).

Today though, I want to discuss just one of the powers that I believe is being badly mishandled in Scotland for no reason other than the lack of political will to change it.

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Solarpunk: Growing the Hope We Deserve

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. – William Gibson

So began William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer and so began what is now known as the Cyberpunk genre. So began countless other generation-defining books, films, works of art, technology inspired by the ideas the genre explored. So began me – 1984 was the year I was born. Cyberpunk is my generation.

Cyberpunk is a world of crushing dystopia. Tortured air and acid rains bleach the life and soul out of polluted cities. There is no society or community here. An individual is one against millions, toiling thanklessly to meet a quota set by an uncaring human if you’re lucky; an equally uncaring AI if you’re not. This is a world where Megacorporations rule to the point that even Governments can do little to prevent them sucking the last dregs of the world’s resources into their ever growing, ever insatiable maws. Technology can provide you with the kinds of miracles that once founded religions but only at a terrible cost. And yet there are those who still work at the edges of this world, or beneath it, or hidden within it, who still fight for what hope remains in the world. Cyberpunk is often about celebrating the rebels fighting against crushing authority. Those who refuse to accept that which others tell them is “inevitable”. Victories are sometimes fleeting, sometimes they are indeed entirely futile, but victories are still possible. Hope can still be found in the “desert of the real”, even if it is a grimy, flawed and compromised kind of hope.

But in Gibson’s opening it is a curiously analogue metaphor that defines the digital frontier of cyberpunk. A sky as grey as analogue static. You don’t have to be much younger than me to be someone who doesn’t understand that metaphor in the same way that I can. The UK – by far not the frontrunner in this particular technological race – completed its television digital switchover a decade ago. For generations now and those to come the dead channel of television will be a brilliant sky blue.

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(Source: Wallpaper Cave)

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Penetrating Pension Politics

Understanding is a three-edged sword. Your side, my side, and the truth. — J Michael Straczynski

This week – amidst several weeks of some of the most fraught politics both south and north of the border – saw the re-emergence of a political topic that is both quite defining of my political career so far and has been the source of some of the most vicious and personal attacks levied against me by folk on the other side of my political leanings (albeit, even that was far less abuse than many folk receive on the internet as a matter of course simply for the “crime” of having an opinion in public while not being a straight, white, middle-class, cis-male). But hey, what’s one more time into the breach amongst friends…

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(Source: Centre for Ageing Better)

I am, of course, talking about the matter of how state pensions are likely to operate in the transition years immediately after Scottish independence. Sparked by some senior members of the SNP catching up with and seemingly now adopting the position that I introduced six years ago. Namely that:

After Scottish independence and unless there is a political deal to the contrary or a drastic shift in current policy, the State of the remaining United Kingdom (rUK) – assuming it successfully claims Continuing State status with regards to the former UK – shall continue to pay its state pension to people who have paid UK National Insurance in proportion to their years of payment regardless of their citizenship, their geographic location during their period of working or their location upon reaching retirement age and this includes qualifying pensioners living in post-independent Scotland.

It is important however to discuss each of the clauses in that statement and to do so while remaining, as far as possible, above the emotive statements and political bias that have characterised this topic. Perhaps no other – except perhaps the topic of the physical customs infrastructure at the border – is more emblematic of the complexities of disentangling two states and even that exception will ultimately affect far fewer people and in far less tangible ways. Not all of us frequently or regularly cross the border into England. Many more of us face the prospect of growing old and having to prepare for eventual retirement.

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But It’s Reserved!

“When you have no real power, go public — really public. The public is where the real power is.” – Elizabeth Warren

The nature of Scotland’s devolved settlement is that the country is simultaneously less powerful than many would like but more powerful than many would give it credit. The reserved powers list in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act are quite clear and the Scottish Government can and has been taken to court when it has attempted to overreach its powers. However the areas of devolved powers are broad and cross-cutting enough that it is often possible to effect change in defiance of Westminster simply by looking for the cracks and loopholes within those reserved and devolved powers.

We have also seen the pandemic reveal that some powers (such as the power to close or restrict borders) which were previously assumed to be reserved have, in fact, been substantially devolved. Until the pandemic struck it would have been considered unthinkable that the Scottish Government could effectively order the closure of the Anglo-Scottish border – and yet, for a time, it was (that the closure wasn’t particularly well policed and enforced is another matter entirely).

Scotland pushed against reserved Westminster policy many times – mostly significantly by using powers over planning permission to effectively block nuclear power and onshore fracking in Scotland. A larger challenge looms in the form of offshore oil and gas, but I believe that the Scottish Government could go further that it current does in terms of opposing oil extraction around Scotland despite the powers to do so being largely reserved.

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(Source: Unsplash)

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