Better For Who?

“If politicians don’t care about the electorate and lie to them, they can’t expect the electorate to care back and vote them in. An election must be more than a search for honesty in a snake pit.” – Stewart Stafford

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

This month marked eight years since the Scottish Independence Referendum and it’s fair to say that they have not been a quiet eight years. Brexit, pandemic, economic turmoil and the grinding poverty caused by over a decade of Austerity are taking their toll on the wellbeing of the country. It’s certainly not the promised “sunlit uplands” or even the pre-2014 “status quo” that many thought they were voting for. As we move into a fresh independence campaign, it’s worth looking back at some of the things we were promised in 2014 by the pro-Union campaign and how those promises have panned out since.

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The Eternal Workforce

“Austerity should not be a death sentence. Every person should be able to retire with the benefits they’ve earned and dignity they deserve.” – Fuad Alakbarov

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

Last week, while everyone else was watching a septuagenarian finally start the job he was born to do, some stats were released by the ONS that revealed that he is not alone in the “grey workforce”. An increasing number of older people in the UK are entering, re-entering or remaining within the workforce. It paints a picture of the older workforce that reveals underlying weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the UK economy.

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Land Reform Requires Democracy

“As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.” – Adam Smith

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

The Scottish Government is currently consulting on a new Land Reform Bill. The consultation closes next week so while there’s still time for you to submit your own response there isn’t much and you should get it in as soon as possible. We’ll be publishing our own response next week. In brief, the Scottish Government’s proposals are that Scotland should better regulate large-scale landholdings by forcing them to comply with the already existing but voluntary Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement that recommends actions to better care for land. The proposals suggest that a breach of the statement could lead to fines or cutting off access to Scottish Government subsidies.

The proposals also suggest that large-scale landowners regularly submit a Land Management Plan laying out, amongst other things, how the owner(s) will use the land, how that land use will contribute to “Net Zero” and how they will engage with the local community on reaching the goals and objectives they lay out for the land.

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Collaboration, Not Competition

“Collaboration has no hierarchy. The Sun collaborates with soil to bring flowers on the earth.” – Amit Ray

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

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This week saw the annual launch of the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government – its stated aims for the next year in Parliament. Usually at this time I’d be taking you through a deep dive of the various policy announcements and what they might mean for Scotland. The truth is though there isn’t really all that much there to dive into. Most of the major programmes mentioned in it (such as the National Care Service or the Circular Economy) have already been announced and are underway and many of the truly new announcements simply aren’t all that exciting. Even I, policy-geek amongst policy-geeks, can’t bring myself to get too excited about the devolution of the Aggregates Levy – the tax paid on taking stones and soil to landfill. It was one of the taxes devolved to Scotland in the wake of Indyref, the Smith Commission and the eventual Scotland Act 2016. The others were Income Tax (significant, but already straining at the seams of what is possible under devolution), Air Passenger Duty (the devolution of which was scrapped because of a potential legal fight with the EU), the assignment of VAT revenues (the devolution of which was scrapped because no-one could work out how to actually do it) and now Aggregates Levy (which will finally be devolved seven years and two Holyrood Elections after the mandate to do so). According to GERS, it’s currently worth around £58 million per year which is almost 1/16 of the estimated margin of error in the calculation of Scotland’s overall tax revenue.

The only other really noteworthy item is that the Scottish Government has finally acceded to the campaign to bring in the kind of tourist tax that almost all of us will be familiar with if we’ve travelled anywhere in Europe. Back in August, I spoke to the National about this kind of tax and mentioned the possibility of using it to fund or subsidise public transport and that perhaps tourists could be granted a free travel pass when they arrive in return.

But let’s talk about the most important policy announcement in this year’s PfG – so important that someone decided to leak it to the press ahead of time. The Scottish Government has decided to bring in an emergency rent freeze – backdated to the day of the PfG, though the legislation still needs to pass through Parliament. At the time of writing, we don’t yet know many of the details of the freeze itself including whether or not the Government will subsidise landlords for implementing the freeze. The news report announcing the leak mentioned a source who said that if the cost of the freeze was met by landlords then it would cost the Government nothing – this certainly suggests that if the landlords don’t cover the freeze then the Government may look at giving them partial or full compensation in the way that Liz Truss may be about to do to energy companies. It’s difficult to say how much this could cost as the freeze may only be for a limited duration (say, till March 2023) and many landlords – particularly in the public sector – only raise rates anyway once per Financial Year in April and some private landlords either do the same or weren’t planning to raise rates anyway (will they claim otherwise now if they can expect “free” money from the Government for doing so?).

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Work For Life

“Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten the message that the more we struggle and the more we suffer, the more valuable we will become and the more successful we’ll eventually be. And so we overwork ourselves, overschedule ourselves, and become “busier than thou” because we think there’s some sort of prize on the other side of the pain we cause ourselves. And you know what? There’s no prize. All you get from suffering is more suffering.” – Kate Northrup

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

We’re currently living through an era of great change – “Interesting Times”, as the old curse goes – and the way we work is changing with it. During these moments of change we often wonder what it would take to make things go “back to normal” even if there is no “normal” to go back to – or whether we should even try given the problems we all knew existed in that “old normal”.

During the Covid lockdowns of the last few years many of us were suddenly thrust into a new normal when it came to work as our offices were closed and we started working from home (and yes, I’m one of the lucky ones who were able to do this. Not every job can be worked from home. Not every home can be easily worked from).

For many, the transition was a difficult one. For many others though, the transition to home working brought many positives, including no longer having to spend several hours a day commuting. One of the advantages I’ve personally found is the increased flexibility to step away from my desk for a few moments to take a break or get something done around the house (even if it’s just to put a load of washing on) rather than having to wait till I’m home, knackered and would rather do anything else.

image_2022-09-05_103902942(Image Source: The Centre for Ageing Better)

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2021-22 Edition)

“They were learning fast, or at least collecting data, which they considered to be the same as learning.” – Terry Pratchett

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

You can also read my previous work on GERS on this blog behind the following links: 2013-142014-152015-162016-172017-182018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Welcome to the second year of the Covid Discontinuity. As I noted last year, we’re in the middle of the worst possible thing that can happen to a statistician – a major event that throws out all of the carefully plotted trends and predictions. Last year I also used the phrase dreaded of every economic seer or scryer – “If things go back to normal next year…”

Well, they didn’t. Covid continued despite the best efforts of politicians in Scotland and the UK to ignore it, Brexit bit harder, the economic turmoil blamed on the escalating war in Ukraine caused a major fuel crisis that threatens to harm millions in the UK, inflation and interest rate spikes combined with continued wage repression raise the very real threat of a second Winter of Discontent and around Europe and the UK will be hosting Eurovision despite only coming second place.

In purely budgetary terms, this year’s GERS report suggests that Scotland’s finances do seem to be improving somewhat as the Covid support money slows down or stops completely (Don’t look at the ongoing pandemic, lost work and productivity due to illness or future increased health spending though…also don’t look at the massive looming catastrophe as cuts to social care are causing the NHS in England to grind to a halt and may be responsible for around 500 deaths a week in England alone…). The notional Scottish “deficit” is £23.7 billion – still higher than the pre-Covid trend of around £15 billion but down from last year’s exceptional £36.5 billion.

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It’s GERSmas!!

With apologies to Slade!

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Are you drawing up your spreadsheet on the wall?
The Economist is gazing into his ball.
Does he predict recession?
Or a sunlit upland session?
Do the numbers keep him blootered for the day?

So here it is, Merry GERSmas.
Nobody is having fun.
Look to the future now.
Try to see what is to come.

Are you waiting for the trendlines to all rise?
Are you sure that your assumptions are the right size?
Does the media always tell ya,
That your plans are just the worst?
When you fix them then their headlines just reversed.

So here it is, Merry GERSmas.
Nobody is having fun.
Look to the future now.
Try to see what is to come.

What will your budget do when it sees your taxes going to London-town?
A-ha

Are you balancing tax in with spending sprawl?
Are you hoping that deficits will start to fall?
Will you tax that grouse moor hillside
With the land reforms you’ve made?
Or subsidise the sector?
(you’ve bin played)

So here it is, Merry GERSmas
Nobody is having fun.
Look to the future now.
Try to see what is to come.
So here it is, Merry GERSmas
Nobody is having fun.
Look to the future now.
Try to see what is to come.
So here it is, Merry GERSmas
Nobody is having fun.
(It’s GERSmas!!!)
Look to the future now.
Try to see what is to come.


See my previous GERSmas Carols here.
2017
2018
2019
2020

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Protecting Pensioners

“You’re mugging old ladies every bit as much if you pinch their pension fund” – Ben Elton

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

Last year, Bill Johnston and I published our book All of Our Futures – an exploration of ageism in Scotland, how it causes inappropriate policies regarding age and ageing and what Scotland could do instead to create a country that we can all safely, securely and proudly grow older in. In one of the chapters we discuss how an independent Scotland could improve policies around pensions.

This is one of the topics of great interest to everyone on all sides of the constitutional campaign but it’s also a topic that few attempt to tackle in any great detail. However the team here at Common Weal recently realised that while this chapter of the book represents our most up to date thinking on an independent Scotland’s policies towards pensions, we don’t actually have a dedicated Policy Paper on the topic beyond some higher level aspects such as in our 2017 paper on Social Security or discussions around debt and asset transfers found in our book How to Start a New Country or my paper for the Scottish Independence Convention, Parting Ways. This newsletter article will go some way to redressing this but it can only remain a short summary of what is laid out in much greater detail in the book. One thing in particular to bear in mind when discussing pensions is that there are two aspects of them which must be handled differently if not quite entirely separately. The state pension and private pensions.

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Our Land – Your Voice

“The people had to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their backs. The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did not encumber the land that was by rights their own. The people were driven away like dogs who deserved no better”. – Betsy Mackay (quoted by John Prebble in “The Highland Clearances”)

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

Last week, I took part in the Scottish Government’s virtual public meeting on their Land Reform for a Net Zero Scotland Consultation. This was the only virtual meeting of the series, with the remainder being held in various rural locations across Scotland. About 120 people were in attendance to hear Andrew Thin from the Scottish Land Commission, Janet Mountford-Smith, one of the Scottish Government civil servants charged with coordinating this consultation and the Land Reform Bill as well as Government Ministers Màiri McAllan and Lorna Slater whose remits lie within this Bill. After presentations by all four, the audience was given the opportunity to ask questions. Unfortunately, they chose not to record this virtual meeting though we were assured that the Scottish Government took notes throughout.

Our hosts said repeatedly throughout the evening that the Scottish Government was “entirely open” to suggestions on how to enact Land Reform – and repeatedly encouraged folk to respond to the Consultation – it’s clear that they’re not working from an entirely blank slate here. Several proposals are being made and some of them, we clearly must object to.

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Democrat, Renew Thyself!

“And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country.” – The Bible, Luke 4:23

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

The second in the series of the Scottish Government’s Independence White Papers has been published. Renewing Democracy through Independence presents the Government’s view on the state of democracy in the UK, the limits of Scottish voters’ democratic voices within the UK and how Scottish independence could improve the situation.

The paper outlines the various democratic deficits of the UK. From the unelected House of Lords, through the unproportional voting system of the UK General Elections, the lack of accountability that comes with majority governments in that UK, the fact that devolution is granted essentially at the pleasure of the UK Government and can be withdrawn or overridden at any time and, most importantly for a document promoting Scottish independence, the fact that despite pro-independence parties winning several elections in the years since the last independence referendum it essentially comes down to the whim of the UK Prime Minister to “allow” another one. The central claim is that the UK is insufficiently prepared to correct these democratic deficits from within and only an independent Scotland would free itself from them.

There’s little on the pages of this paper that is outright objectionable, indeed I and others at Common Weal have made some of the very same points in our work over the years, but this paper stands in a strange place without, apparently, a clear idea of its target audience. It’s too long and detailed to be read by anyone who doesn’t have an interest in politics but it’s simultaneously too shallow and, frankly, bland for anyone who does. As Chapter 2 of a unified Independence White Paper it would read as an introductory preamble to later chapters but as Paper 2 in a series of individual papers it doesn’t really stand alone in its own right. It certainly does little to say precisely what an independent Scotland would do to fill the gaps left in Scottish democratic structures after the undemocratic sections of UK governance are excised by independence. To that end, what follows is a brief attempt to fill that gap with what I would like to see every level of Scottish politics look like.

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