Qualifier: The following article shall cite political views which represent, to the best of my understanding, the positions of the Official Remain and Leave campaigns. As such they may not necessarily represent the views held by myself or by any organisations or political parties of which I am a member. My own views shall be indicated throughout.
Are EU In or Out? – Part 1: What is The EU? can be read here
Are EU In or Out? – Part 2: A Brief History of Brexit can be read here
The EU Referendum Issues
I’ll say again that I believe that the “Official” Remain and Leave campaigns in this referendum are almost as dreary and dire as the other. It’s rather depressing how we’re witnessing something as momentous as the potential future of Europe being used as leverage for something as petty as an internal debate about the future leader of the Conservative party. Worse than that though is the attitude towards the issues. It’s almost as if BOTH sides looked at “Project Fear” – the 2014 Scottish anti-independence campaign which, through unrelenting negativity and naesaying, managed to turn a 30 point lead into a 10 point lead and ravaged public trust in both their member political parties (Labour in particular) and in the media which reported for them – and took the very worst aspects of it into their hearts.
It’s been left to the “Unofficial” campaign to speak not only to and for the Scottish dimension (as typified by “The Wee BlEU Book” by Alyn Smith MEP and Ian Hudghton MEP and which I consider to be required reading before the vote) but also for Green and Left voters (as typified by groups such as Another Europe is Possible and DiEM25 which recently held an excellent conference on the Left case for Remain).
This series of articles began as a response to someone I know who was asking for as balanced a case as I could write on the debate. I find that I cannot, given the campaign and my place in it, give a strictly neutral view but I can do as follows. I shall take the primary issues as encountered in the media and shall attempt to lay out the “Official” position on that issue by Leave and Remain. I shall then add my own commentary on that issue. This may result in my agreeing with one or other of the “Official” campaigns or it may have me disagreeing with both and offering an alternative path.
Are EU In or Out? – Part 1: What is The EU? can be read here.
A Brief History of Brexit
It’s fair to say that the UK has never been as fully engaged with the European project as, say, our neighbours in France and Germany. The country wasn’t an initial signatory of the 1957 Treaty of Rome which formed the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK hadn’t initially wanted to engage, citing reasons such as the economic turmoil of WWII, the transition of the UK from Global Empire to secondary power to the USA and the transition of the Commonwealth from a network of colonies and dependencies to a family of fully independent nations in their own right which had led to the UK being rather distracted from affairs on the continent.
The aftermath of the Suez Crisis, though, convinced many that the UK could no longer act as a unilateral power and views began to shift towards co-operation. Entry as a founding member was twice blocked by the veto of French President Charles de Gaulle (whose post-war relationship with the UK was infamously frosty).
It’s worth noting that through this period, the comparatively high per capita spend in post-war UK from the European Recovery Program (the “Marshall Plan”) compared to the countries of the continent linked into the UK’s pivotal position within the Bretton Woods currency management program (which together mandated freer trade between the European nations and the US) probably also served to shift the UK’s cultural focus rather away from the continent and rather more towards the USA.
As a kind of compromise, in 1960 the UK led efforts along with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland to form an alternative, though complementary, network to the “Inner Six” (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) of the EEC known as the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
Come the early 1970’s, de Gaulle had departed and the objections from outside to the UK’s integration with Europe had departed with him allowing the UK to began again to petition the EEC ultimately joining in 1973. The decision was a fractious one, especially within the Labour party, and the February 1974 General election returned the minority Labour government under Harold Wilson based, in part, on the promise of a consultative referendum on the continued membership of the EEC. This promise was later strengthened to a promise of a binding referendum during the October 1974 General Election campaign which returned Labour with a narrow majority. The bill to hold such a referendum (the first in the modern era of UK politics and the only one to be held in the 20th century) was passed only with Tory support and the vote itself held on the 5th June 1975. With a turnout of 65% and a vote of 67% in favour of remaining within the EEC the course was set and the matter settled…for two years until the talks on the formation of the European Parliament and the formulation of the political integration which would become the EU…
The 1980’s brought in a change in UK political ideology, in the form of Thatcher’s Conservatives. Whilst the party of this era had supported the continuing membership of the EEC whilst in opposition and, indeed, was considered far less Eurosceptic than it is nowadays, the political direction with regard to Europe remained mixed. On one hand, the program of privatisation, the push towards indirect consumption taxes rather than indirect wealth and income tax greatly mirrored the movements in America under Reagan. On the other, the macroeconomic shocks of the mid 1980’s through the 1985 Plaza Accord and the 1987 Louvre Accord saw the UK switch the peg on the Pound’s exchange rate from the US Dollar to the West German Deutsche Mark which served to greatly stabilise the UK’s balance of trade with Europe (at the cost of increased volatility with regard to the US) at a time when European industry was increasing rapidly. The increasing employment opportunities in West Germany coupled with the catastrophic deindustrialisation of the UK was highlighted and typified at the time by the now classic comedy-drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet which saw a group of British construction workers from various parts of England take advantage of the rapidly freeing of movement of labour throughout the EEC to find work in Germany.
Other satire of the time, such as Yes Minister, lampooned both the perception of increasing “meddling” of the EEC in the trade market as well as the UK’s own attempts to meddle back.
Thatcher’s era also saw a series of renegotiations of the UK’s terms of membership with the EU beginning with a topic at the front of the lips of many within euro circles to this day. The Rebate.
The Thatcher government felt that the UK had gotten a raw deal out of the Common Agricultural Policy negotiations. The UK was one of the richer members of the EEC and therefore one of the larger contributors to it but, unlike other nations, particularly France and Portugal, we had a disproportionately small agricultural sector meaning that, as a percentage of EEC expenditure, the UK got back in grants and development funds a fair bit less than it put in even as a proportional share. Thatcher (with a cry of “I want my money back”) therefore negotiated a cash rebate on our membership fee paid directly to Westminster coffers.
This rebate was not without cost though. The rebate is paid for by an increase in the membership costs of the other EU nations (and we can imagine how we would feel about that if the situation were to be reversed) and has increased feeling among continental EU citizens (particularly in France and Germany although I have noted similar sentiment during my travels in Italy and Austria and even in Switzerland too) of Britain either getting “special treatment” or simply that Britain is insufficiently invested in the EU project.
Financially, the rebate has been rather less beneficial to some parts of the UK than to others. Whilst the UK as a whole is less agricultural than the EU average, Scotland is particularly devoted to agriculture (71% of Scotland’s land area is agricultural and we produce substantially above our 8% population “share” of UK agricultural produce (even despite the severe depopulation and underuse of the Highlands). Between the rebate and deliberate mismanagement of EU development funding by Westminster (including the diversion of funds specifically designated for Scottish farmers) Scotland receives some of the lowest levels of CAP payments per hectare in Europe. The rebate was also bought by the concession that Britain drop objections to the entry of Spain and Portugal into the Common Fisheries Policy, in line with the UK Government’s view that Scottish fisheries were “expendable“.
Come 1990 and the transition to the Major government and the UK got involved in the next struggle with European integration. Shifting macroeconomic focus further back towards Europe brought the agenda of formally joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a formal currency peg with, chiefly, the Deutsche Mark came back to the fore. This proved to be a disaster for the UK whose economy struggled to convergence to stability with the currency arrangements especially once the new tranche of financial speculators, born from and encouraged by a decade of Thatcher’s monetarist policies and infamously led by George Soros, saw an opening and began widely speculating on the pound. Despite throwing large amounts of public money into the stability mechanisms, the UK Government was unable to keep up with the speculators and the pound crashed out of the ERM on Black Wednesday in 1992. This cost the public purse some £2.4 billion and signaled the end of the ability for governments to exercise true control over the finances of an economy against the will of “The Market”.
(See especially from 40 min)
Whether or not this represented a fundamental failure of the structures of the ERM (or the Euro) itself (no other country has been crashed out of it in quite the same way although Greece appears to have only Pyrrhicly avoided it) it certainly poisoned the UK’s view of it although, almost perversely, our government’s view of the financial industry has continued rather more positively and both the official Remain and Leave campaigns have argued that their position would best help protect the City.
This would be best displayed five years later when Gordon Brown devised the “Five Economic Tests” which would need to be fulfilled before the UK considered joining the Euro. Joining criteria are important (again, looking at Greece there) and the euro itself has its own convergence criteria (which the UK currently fails to meet) but the Brown tests were set up less as a target to meet before joining the Euro and more as a barrier to excuse not even trying. Nevertheless, even if it could be shown that the UK would benefit as part of the euro, I rather doubt there would be the political and popular will to actually go forward with it.
The 2004 and 2007 enlargements of the EU provided the latest point of contention between the Union and the UK. These enlargements brought in many Eastern European nations and with them gave freedom of movement for many nations that were significantly poorer than the western nations. Immediately, whilst not vetoing the entry of these nations directly, the UK slapped many of them with temporary restrictions on those new member nations.
Anti-immigration sentiment, fueled by certain factions in the print media, is fairly on the rise even at the possible expense of a certain amount of cognitive dissonance among those who are quite proud of their own freedom to move around the EU.
The run up to 2010 UK General Elections saw Nick Griffin and the BNP rise as the media’s pet anti-immigrant, anti-establishment, right-wing “alternative” though it was sharply checked by Griffin’s humiliation on the BBC’s Question Time. Casting for an alternative, alternative the media turned to Nigel Farage and UKIP and their disproportionate appearances in the media since then has undoubtedly played a part in their current rising tide.
(I would note, even as an objector to almost everything that they stand for, that UKIP as a party are far from the irrational xenophobia of all things unBritish as portrayed by the BNP. Indeed, until fairly recently they were full proponents of the idea of free movement of people. Just that it is to be free movement within the Commonwealth, not the EU).
The rise of UKIP and the strain within the Conservative party as many of their members and backbenchers were tempted to convert to them forced David Cameron to act. His 2015 Manifesto promised the referendum on EU membership that UKIP had long been demanding in exchange for his majority victory in the elections and, seeing the obvious mathematics, UKIP supporters voted for Cameron (or tactically voted UKIP instead of Labour) in numbers significant enough to swing the election against the predictions of many of the pundits at the time. Cameron saved his party and won his government but has now been placed in a very difficult position as the referendum looms and his party threatens to tear itself asunder in the process. This is why the actual campaign has been so dismal compared to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. It’s playing so much more as a Conservative internal party meeting and leadership contest than it is a debate on the future of Europe and the UK within or outwith it. Which way voters see things, whether we embrace the EU, reject it entirely or simply continue on with the one-foot-in approach that we’ve had more or less since inception remains very much to be seen.
Finally. After all that seriousness. A short educational video about EU stereotypes.
The EU flag flying beside the French national flag over the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.
The referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is fast approaching and, now that the Scottish parliamentary elections are out of the way, we are now shifting our focus upon it. I know that, especially amongst the activists, election fatigue is high but we really must not let this event pass us by.
For my own part, I am decided. I shall be voting to Remain within the EU and will be doing so out of rejection of both the official Remain and Leave campaigns. Whilst I have written about some of the issues important to me previously, it’s time to expand upon them whilst commenting on the issues important to both of the official campaigns. I shall attempt to outline these as objectively as I can whilst also laying out my own hopes and opinions on those issues.
In this article, I shall first outline the structures of the EU and some of what it actually does before moving on in a subsequent article to look at the issues being discussed in the referendum itself.
What is the EU and how does it work?
First, before the issues themselves, it’s best to understand just what the EU is, how it came about and what it does now. To help with this, the Green/EFA group in the European Parliament produced the following guide. Whilst some points are highlighted with the Green viewpoint on things, the document is largely objective and highly readable. I suggest that all voters who have any doubts or vagueries give it a good look through certainly before the vote and preferably before continuing here. Click the image or here to read.
To attempt a brief(-ish) overview, the EU is an ongoing project which rose from the ruins of WWII initially as an attempt to arrange the politics of Europe such that war between the European nations, particularly between France and Germany, would never again be possible. This process began with the gradual interlinking of the French and German economies via the Coal and Steel Community in 1953 and gradually expanded into other economic areas and into the political sphere beginning with the 1957 Treaty of Rome (the preamble of which includes the first use of the now widespread adage and long term goal of the EU towards “ever closer union”) and the founding of the European Economic Community. In 1993, the Maastricht Treaty created the European Union and the single European currency, the euro, and laid out the powers it would have in areas both intergovernmental (i.e. by agreement of all members but without strictly superceding their national sovereignty) and supranational (i.e. powers directly administered by the Parliament). These became known as the “Three Pillars of the European Union”. This structure was then further amended by the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon which formally created the European Union as we know it today as a distinct legal personality and which laid out exactly where the EU takes exclusive competence preceding national member governments, where competence is shared and where the EU merely “supports” national governments achieve their own distinct policy.
Today, the European Union consists of 28 national members which each take roles of varying degrees of embeddedness with the Union.
The Legislative Branch of the Union is primarily represented by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. This Parliament, with 751 members, is the second largest democratically elected legislative body on the planet after the national Parliament of India (the UK’s House of Lords with 803 members and the Chinese National People’s Assembly with 2987 are the only two larger lawmaking bodies but these are not democratically elected) and is elected every five years (the last vote being in 2014) by a system known as “degressive proportionality”. Essentially, each member nation gets an allocation of not less than 6 MEPs and not more than 96 Members to the Parliament, roughly in line with their population as a fraction of the whole EU but arranged so that a few large nations (Especially, Germany, France, Italy and the UK) cannot dominate proceedings.
Within each member nation the MEPs are elected via the proportional d’Hondt system similar to that used in the Scottish parliamentary election regional ballot. which ensures that many more views from within a nation can be heard than would be the case under, say, the First Past the Post system used in the UK General Elections.
In common with many parliaments throughout the world, the MEPs are also arranged by party affiliation with national political parties banding together with groups of similar ideology such as the Green/European Free Alliance (which includes Green and Regional/Autonomist parties such as the Scottish Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru); The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (which includes the Labour party); The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (of which the Lib Dems are members); the European Conservatives and Reformists (where the Conservatives, unsurprisingly, find their ideological partners). A study by VoteWatch.eu has found that the group to which a particular MEP belongs is a far greater predictor of voting preference than national identity. MEPs tend to vote on party lines rather than national lines. Though an informal and likely unintentional inclination this, in practice, further serves to dilute the inclination for any particular member nation taking the reigns over the whole continent.
The other major legislative body in the EU is the Council of the European Union (sometimes known as the Council of Ministers) which acts more-or-less as the bicameral segment of the Legislative body and consists of one appointed seat per member state. Unlike the Parliament, however, the person sitting on that seat is decided on a more ad hoc basis depending on the issue being discussed. For example, if a bill on agricultural policy is scheduled then the members may send their national government minister for agriculture. Within the UK this has, on occasion, caused some implication with regard to the structure of devolution whereby an issue which overwhelmingly affects an area either within or controlled by Scotland (for example, fishing) may end up being negotiated by a UK Minister who doesn’t actually have responsibility over that area due to its devolution to the Scottish Government whilst the Scottish government minister who DOES have responsibility may not attend as they are not a member of the national government.
One interesting dynamic within the EU is that whilst the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union votes on whether or not EU laws come into force they don’t themselves generally have the power to initiate legislation (except under very limited circumstances). They cannot themselves propose those laws. Whilst this serves as another check against unbridled power (The President of the Parliament cannot declare themselves Dictator of Europe then have Parliament approve the motion and give them ALL the power) the body which balances this leads us into one of the more maligned and less understood aspects of the governance of the Union.
The Executive Branch of the EU and the area with the power to propose new legislation is the European Commission. Also known as “The unelected, faceless bureaucrats from Brussels”. Yes, it is true that they are unelected by the public (once again, UK citizens should be well used to unelected folk making laws for us. We call them Lords.) but are instead appointed by the national member states, each state taking one chair on the (as of 2016) 28 member council. The UK’s current representative is Baron Hill of Oareford (Yup. Our own unelected, faceless bureaucrat is ALSO an unelected member of the House of Lords. You don’t get much more “British” than that).
The Commission is backed by some 23,000 employed civil servants who do all that background paper shuffling and departmental stuff involved in running a continent spanning government with over 500 million citizens. This said, if that sounds like a lot of people, the UK Government’s civil service (not including devolved administrations) employs some 423,000 people.
The European Commission is also backed by the European Council (not to be confused with the Council of Europe which is a non-legislative body more similar to the United Nations and which helped codify democratic ideals such as the European Convention on Human Rights nor should it be confused with the Council of the European Union). The European Council is, again, a body of 28 members, one each per member state, and is comprised of either the heads of state or heads of government of each of those members. The UK’s representative here is the Prime Minister, currently David Cameron. This body formally exists to “provide the Union with the necessary impetus for its development” and essentially guides the strategic overview and crisis management of the Union as well as allowing an outlet for the overall view and attitudes of the governments of the member countries (although, as previously noted, at the Parliament level political party remains a greater predictor of overall voting intention of individual MEPs).
The Court of Justice of the European Union functions as the Judicial Branch of the European Union and acts to ensure that member states apply agreed treaties and rules within the EU equally, ensure that member states do not pass laws which run contrary to the rules of EU membership and protect the rights of EU citizens under those rules. A good recent example of the functioning of this body occurred when the Court issued guidelines to Scottish and UK courts over the implementation of alcohol minimum unit pricing in Scotland.
Number six in the list of institutions within the EU is the European Central Bank which administers the monetary policy of the Eurozone, the 19 member countries of the EU which are in formal currency union with each other and use the euro as their currency. The euro has been one of the major creative exercises of the European Union in that it is a response to the stated goal of attempting to create financial stability within the Union and to allow as few internal barriers to trade as possible.
There exists a macroeconomic principle known as the “Impossible Trinity” which states that a country cannot completely have free control over internal interest rates and monetary policy, completely fix exchange rates and have free capital flow all at the same time. Historically, many countries kept a stable exchange rate and have kept control of the interest rates but had to tightly control capital flow to do so (Some readers may remember the tourist travel allowances in use up until the early 1970’s).
Many countries, the UK included, now allow capital to flow freely and keep the right to control money printing and interest rates but accept that exchange rates between currencies will now be volatile which will impact the prices of imports and exports to and from that country.
The exchange rate between the £ and € since the latter’s launch.
The Eurozone is an example of an attempt by countries to lock their mutual exchange rates (A euro in France is worth exactly the same as a euro in Germany), whilst allowing capital to flow freely around the continent but at the price of individual countries no longer being able to set their own interest rates or freely increase or reduce their internal money supply.
The system is not without its flaws, of course, (no monetary system can be) and the comparative advantages and disadvantages of monetary union as well as the specific structures of the Eurozone are topics of extremely heated debate (and likely always will be).
Whilst the eventual joining of the Eurozone is expected (although not, strictly, actually enforcably required) of EU members, some members, the UK and Denmark, enjoy a formal opt-out from membership of the Eurozone whilst others, like Sweden, have simply no intention of joining until their citizens demand a referendum on joining. Still others, like newest member Croatia, have stated a desire to join the Eurozone but do not currently meet the strict criteria for entry. (For comparison, even without the opt-out, the UK would also fail to meet the euro convergence criteria unless it could reduce both budget deficit and total debt to GDP ratios by more than a third).
The final institution of the European Union is probably the least sung of all. The European Court of Auditors is a final check and balance within the governance of the union and continuously reviews the spending of the EU’s budget. Once again, its membership is appointed based on one member per member state.
A summary of the Institutions of the European Union and how they interact.
I’m an EU Citizen. What’s in it for me?
From the passing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the concept of EU Citizenship was born and granted to (almost) every citizen of a member nation (for exceptions, see the Youtube video near the top of this article). This citizenship is stated to be supplementary to national citizenship and grants a citizen several rights to do with the EU. These include:
The right to vote in and stand for positions in the European Parliament in any EU state depending on your residence.
The right to vote in and stand for positions in local elections (In Scotland, this means Community Council, Regional Authority and Scottish Parliamentary elections) under the same conditions as nationals of this state. Note that this does not guarantee (but also does not forbid) the right to vote or stand in national elections or referendums which is why EU citizens were permitted to vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum (which was a “regional” referendum) but have been blocked by the UK Government from voting in the upcoming EU referendum.
Access to EU Government documents and to petition the EU Parliament, including the right to request information in any of the official languages of the EU and to receive a reply in that same language.
The right to free movement and residence. You may move to and within any EU member nation as freely as one of their nationals and may claim residence there just as freely. You have the right to move anywhere within the EU for the purposes of bettering you standards of living and are not tied to reasons of employment to do so. This right also forms the basis of the Schengen Agreement which removes border controls between participating countries.
Somewhere almost exactly on the Austria-Germany border.
The right to consular protection. One of the lesser known perks of EU membership. If you happen to be in a country which does not host an embassy belonging to your home nation and you are in need of their assistance then you may visit the embassy of any other EU member nation and they will be required to give you the same treatment as they would one of their own citizens. This right is perhaps under-appreciated by British citizens due to the size of the UK’s diplomatic network but there are still countries around the world in which the UK is not represented but in which your EU citizenship would grant you this protection. Examples include the Central African Republic (which has a French embassy), Liberia (In which you would visit the German embassy) and Lesotho (in which Ireland maintains an embassy).
Of all of these personal rights, perhaps the one most under scrutiny and debate within the context of the upcoming referendum is the right to free movement. For some, this is a freedom to move labour to where it is needed and to move and potentially retire and countries with rather more sun than the UK enjoys. For others, it is a gateway for rich nations to be flooded by economic migrants from poorer nations or, worse, for the economically inactive to take advantage of comparatively generous welfare systems and to mooch off the labour of others.
My second analysis report on behalf of Common Weal was published today. You can download it here or by clicking the image below:
The case presented by the Scottish Government for a 50% cut in Air Passenger Duty (and an eventual scrapping of the tax) has been predicated on the additional business and tourism it would bring to Scotland. However, the key pieces of evidence used to come to this conclusion appear to severely downplay the role of outgoing tourism as well as the spending patterns of those tourists. In short, business flights will remain largely unaffected whilst leisure flights may, somewhat counter-intuitively, lead to a drop in tourism within Scotland. The only area which will definitively benefit will be the airlines and airports themselves who will happily serve customers both coming and going (Although even this growth will be limited largely to the Central Belt airports and will be subject to capacity limits).
Instead of clumsily slashing a single tax, we should be taking a holistic approach to policy-making which analyses tourism in the round, takes a realistic attitude towards business travel and considers Scotland and its respective transport needs as a totality.
• The case for business growth due to an APD cut appears particularly weak as business flights are driven by need and time pressures rather than price.
• The case for an APD cut encouraging more visits to Scotland for the purposes of international trade and business deals is particularly weak as long haul business flights between the UK and the US and Asia is almost entirely price insensitive.
• If an APD cut results in a transfer of revenue from APD to corporation tax there may be deeper implications for the robustness of the Scottish budget under the devolved tax structure. This will be exacerbated in the case of corporate profits transferred outside of the UK entirely.
• The case for increases in tourist traffic is substantially undermined by the impact of cheaper tickets inducing more domestic tourists taking foreign trips instead.
• The spending power of the outbound tourists most likely to take more trips outside of Scotland is greater than the typical spending power of the inbound tourists most likely to take more trips to Scotland.
• The inbound tourists which have a greater spending power than typical domestic tourists are the least likely to be sensitive to airline ticket prices.
• Inbound tourists are generally more weakly linked to the economy than consumers more likely to be induced to leave which may lead to negative economic impacts even in the face of increased tourist numbers.
• Whilst the economy most directly linked to airport traffic will see an increase in activity, this increase will ultimately be capped by the capacity of the airports in question. The seasonal nature of tourist traffic will exacerbate this impact.
• The greater impact on the transport network due to increased traffic needs to be considered in light of this proposal as do the economic imbalances created by the APD cut inducing greater traffic in the Central Belt but little growth elsewhere.
• If the reduction in revenue due to the APD cut is not at least recouped in full then additional cuts in public spending may be required. The negative impacts on the economy of this additional Austerity would then be dependent on precisely where those cuts occurred.
I’ll confess to being a lightweight. I snuck off for a few hours sleep right after the Clydesdale results were called and woke up right after the Lothian list so unlike virtually every other political pundit in Scotland right now, I’m able to type only marginally less coherently than normal.
So. How about those results?
The Green contingent has expanded three-fold and whilst I’m more than a little upset that neither of the two candidates covered by my branch, Kirsten Robb and Sarah Beattie-Smith, made it in I’m heartened by the success of the others notably Andy Wightman in Lothians. Who Owns Scotland? We’re about to find out!
My hypothesis that the SNP would come back with another majority appear to have been disproven although a clear pro-independence majority remains. Arguably, the Greens could call this a result significantly in our favour as we move to the wrangling over Parliamentary positioning begins.
I’m willing to be wrong again but I can’t see much appetite for an offer of a formal coalition. It doesn’t seem like good game theory for the SNP to offer up a Ministerial position (almost certainly something like Energy or Environment) just to avoid a two seat minority. Especially when they already have form for running a minority government with a fair degree of success.
I could see a discussion over some kind of Supply and Confidence arrangement based on some concessions that the Greens have campaigned on and over which there’s already a substantial level of support within the SNP membership.
I’ll make one prediction on this point. Unless the SNP are willing to rely on Tory support, Fracking will not happen in Scotland. Good.
I’d be hoping that there might be some more movement over local taxation and, perhaps, the Scottish Government will let Andy formally get his teeth and claws into the Land Reform Bill. That’ll be a joy to watch. The Greens campaigned on giving the Scottish Government the courage to be bolder on a range of issues. Here’s hoping it can.
So, on the vote itself. We saw hints of the total flight of the Right and Unionist vote within Labour as early as November last year but even as the last polls came in they appear to have underestimated the depth of that flight. Ruth Davidson’s campaign to get people to vote Unionist, rather than Conservative, appear to have been successful. What shall be interesting to watch now is what she does with that support. How far can they be pushed on Austerity (or how far can blame for it be deflected) before the Union-at-any-cost vote starts to tally up just that?
Where it leaves Labour is another great unknown. They’ve been utterly wiped from their birthplace in Glasgow and Lanarkshire and have retreated to the Morningside Reds of Edinburgh. They appear to have three choices ahead of them. Either ossify as an increasingly marginal voice in Scottish politics; Abandon the Unionist vote and try to out-left the SNP (I don’t think at this stage that even a drastic Home Rule or Federal position would draw back those now set on independence) or try to out-right the Tories (which would mean claiming, adopting and accelerating Austerity). I cannot honestly see a route back to the forefront of Scottish politics for Labour barring some singularity event such as actual independence or some act of self-destruction within the SNP greater even than the one that UK Labour appear bent on.
The proportionality of AMS was stretched rather to its limits last night. Despite narrowly missing out on a majority the SNP, as the largest party, were the largest beneficiaries of the system gaining approximately 9 seats more than their regional vote percentage would have suggested. The Tories though also benefited gaining about two more seats than their regional vote share whilst Labour broke about even, the Greens losing one seat and the Lib Dems being rather drubbed by the system, losing three seats to the maths. This calculation would have been mitigated by the addition of 6 “Other” seats which, on these results, would have more likely have been distributed amongst the sitting parties rather than going to smaller ones. In most proportional voting systems around the world a minimum threshold of 5% is often applied and, in our case last night, no small party achieved more than 2% nationally or more than 4% in any single region.
It’ll be interesting to see if there are any calls for electoral reform based on these results the way even the SNP made a mild complaint about their overwhelming success under FPTP last year.
Another topic which will now need to be thrashed out is the position of Presiding Officer. I reckon that this year the wrangling over whether the party/ies of government or of opposition give up an MSP for the post will be particularly intense this year given the slim margins and the tactical situations faced by each of the parties. The SNP won’t want to dilute their minority any further, Labour won’t want to shrink further either, the Tories and Greens will want to capitalise on their gains to maximum effect and if the Lib Dems lose one more MSP they cease to be an official parliamentary group.
Personally, I’m rather disturbed by the concept of choosing the PO from the MSPs in the first place. Why should the electorate who have only just chosen their representatives have to give one up as the PO must remain neutral, must resign from the political party and whip and have severe restrictions on where and how they vote (Only in the event of a tie and only to maintain the status quo or further the debate). To me, this isn’t a job for a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I’d look towards inspiration from the “checks and balances” of the US. Perhaps the PO should be appointed from a pool of senior judges or similar judicial positions? They are already used to applying impartially the rule of law so should trivially be able to manage Parliament in a neutral manner.
Of course, an alternative to a Presiding Officer could be an elected President, but that is likely to be a discussion for a post-independence situation…
Where do we go from here? I honestly have no idea. Going from bracing for a substantial majority and “the most boring Parliament” of the devolution period (as one pundit put it) to back to the days of actual discussion about policy I think the next five years could be one filled with potential…if we choose to allow it. For a last word:
The Scottish elections for the fifth session since the Restoration of Parliament are almost upon us. Fun Fact: Due to the voting age being lowered to 16, this will be the first election to include voters born AFTER the start of the first session in 1999.
The following is a quick guide on how to cast your vote (especially if it’s your first time):
You will receive two ballot papers somewhat like these fictional examples:
On the PURPLE Constituency paper, you will see a list of PEOPLE who are competing to represent your constituency. They may or may not be a member of a party and will indicate thus under their name. Place an X in the box next to the person you think will best represent your constituency. (If they are a member of a party, this may or may not inform your choice)
On the PEACH Regional paper, you will see a list of PARTIES competing to gain the most seats in Parliament. The Parties may have a final advertising pitch or by-line such as “Nicola Sturgeon for First Minister” or somesuch under their name.
Place an X in the box next to the party whose policies most appeal to you and that you would like to see have more seats in Parliament.
Do not place any other markings, writing etc on either ballot as this may void that vote.
Then follow instructions in your polling place telling you in which box to place each paper.
More details on how your votes are counted as well as some myths and common misconceptions can be read here: