It has been an interesting year. On one hand, a lot of dirt has been cast about and many of us are feeling just a bit covered in it all. On the other, a lot of seeds have been planted. A few have already started to sprout. It’s a good time to have a look back over the blog this past year and see where we’ve been.
Traffic towards the blog has grown quite remarkably this year. Over 51 thousand views across 35 thousand visitors which represents a 40% increase over 2016. Thank you to everyone who has come round and to those who brought a friend with them. I’m glad to have continued to produce something worth reading.
You seem to be split roughly 50/50 between coming here via Twitter and Facebook but considering my Facebook page basically isn’t known outside of a couple dozen folk that must mean that you’re all sharing articles. Great. That’s how we get the word out.
January started off with a bang and the publication of version 1.0 of the Common Weal White Paper Project – our attempt to look at the institutions and infrastructure that Scotland will need upon gaining independence thus would need to build as quickly as possible between referendum day and formal independence. Through the year, we’ve since backed up the various chapters of the paper with dedicated research papers covering such things as setting up a central bank, how to deal with our borders and customs, how we could optimise our tax system and much more. This work will be completed in the early part of next year and I’ll talk about those plans a little later.
This month also had me thrust forward into public view in my first major presentation since becoming Common Weal’s Head of Research the previous November. The Scottish Independence Convention invited me along to discuss the results of the 2014 independence referendum and how they broke down by age, gender and other demographics and then to track how things had moved since then. To a crowd of 800 people, including prominent journalists, as well as a livestream, this would be the largest audience I had ever spoken to about politics. Yeah…that shook my nerves a little – I’ve always struggled with stage fright. Looking back at the recording now it shows – but hopefully not too badly.
But I made it though and the talk was very well received. The figures were shocking enough to draw audible gasps from the crowd and to end up being discussed in several mainstream politics columns in the days after. Folk still approach me to ask me about that day.
One wee anecdote from that day that I haven’t told many about. At one point in the talk I discuss independence support amongst supporters of the various political parties. I discuss the non-zero level of support for independence amongst Conservative voters and received no small amount of laughter from the room at the thought. I went on to defend the idea of a conservative voter who may support independence and as I was doing so I started picturing the type of person that might be. They may not outright support independence at the moment but, if circumstances were right, if the arguments were solid, I don’t think they would dismiss them outright. I could see that type of person in my mind’s eye. And then I spotted him in the third row watching me intently. I won’t name names, but I hold to my position that we shouldn’t dismiss any potential Yes voter based on their preferred political party. We’ll need them too, after the vote, as our political landscape readjusts to that of a new nation.
Things got a bit quieter in February. A lull before the storm, it turned out. My most popular blog post that month was a lengthy one discussing the difficulties (or lack thereof) of Scotland (re)joining the EU upon independence. I tried to put to bed once and for all the persistent misrepresentation that there is some kind of “queue” to join the union. Candidate countries move at their own pace through the accession criteria and they join once the EU deems them ready. This is not to say that Scotland may necessarily have and easy time of it. We’re now at the stage where if Brexit starts to bed in before independence and if the Rees-Moggs of the world begin their rights and regulatory slash-and-burn project then Scotland might find it has to build a lot of institutions back up again to meet the Acquis Communautaire. Even without that, if Scotland wants to join the EU then we’ll have to factor that Acquis into the way we build our institutions like our broadcasting and telecoms networks or our banking regulations. The kind of thing that some Yes voters would like to do to the BBC in Scotland may run directly against easy entry into the EU thus we must consider such things before we go ahead.
The month started with my publication of an updated analysis of the economic impact of cutting the Air Departure Tax. My research found that whilst such a cut may benefit the airline and airport industry by boosting passenger numbers, it may well result in more new outbound tourists leaving Scotland than new inbound tourists arriving thus may have a perversely adverse effect on Scotland’s tourist industry.
And then the storm broke.
The First Minister announced that it was SO on.
A bill was brought to the Scottish Parliament to give the Scottish Government the right to call a second independence referendum. It passed with Green support though the UK Government denied the requested Section 30 order to start the process under the line that “now is not the time”. A stalemate still not quite tested nor settled persists and speculation remains whether or not a second referendum will be called before the end of the parliament and the mandate to act upon this vote ends. This may well be the major talking point of Scottish politics in 2018.
March also saw a major stairheid rammie kick up over the GERS figures as Prof. Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK weighed in on the meaningfulness of the numbers – especially as their pertained to independence. My own previous work on GERS meant that I obviously took a close interest in what he was saying and others did too. Both Murphy and I ended up discussing matters with the Scottish government and were received constructively. Again, more on that later.
Finally, March saw the launch of a Common Weal fundraiser aimed at raising £25,000 to secure our work for the coming year. Not only did we hit that goal, we did it largely via people signing up for long term, regular investments rather than one-off donations. This is what makes organisations sustainable far into the future so we were all humbled and very, very thankful for everyone who helped.
Hoo boy. Right up till the day she did it, I would have called her daft for doing so. Do you remember where you were when it happened? When Theresa May called a snap general election? I certainly remember the hide-and-seek campaign that followed where May did absolutely everything she could to avoid being questioned about her policies or her manifesto and even went so far as to run away into the woods of Aberdeenshire to avoid the possibility of having to speak to anyone who wasn’t already a party flunky. The “Strong and Stable” Tour was covered in my most popular post of the year.
Back in Scottish politics, special mention must be made of now-former Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s blistering speech against the Tory Rape Clause. We all approach politics from our own often very different though sometimes remarkably similar perspectives but I hope that each and every one of us goes into politics to make the world a little better than it is. That speech was a reminder of that. Years from now, I hope it is remembered.
A month of elections.
First, we had the Scottish Council elections. I’m proud to have stood for my own local area and whilst I didn’t come close to winning I did manage to beat both UKIP and the Lib Dems in my ward. For a first time candidate in a ward which has only sporadially had a Green candidate – never mind returned one – that wisnae bad.
As soon as that was done, we weary campaigners had to turn ourselves immediately towards the General Election. Without a Green candidate in my constituency this was a little easier for the soles of my boots but still threw up a bit of a democratic dilemma. Faced with a lackluster SNP manifesto and the rising tide of a very attractive Corbyn manifesto I was rather torn. Especially as the man himself simply didn’t seem to “get” Scotland in any shape or form. The local campaign was also pretty appalling. Apart from the SNP incumbent, all of the other candidates were either failed candidates at the previous council election (something which factored into my own decision not to stand in the general election) or, perhaps worse, were SUCCESSFUL candidates and were willing to jack in their council obligations less than a month into the job. I can’t imagine any other job sector in which this would be considered remotely acceptable.
Voting day came. Theresa May’s credibility went, along with her majority. She didn’t have to call that election. But she did, and she flubbed it.
She managed to cling to power only by dint of a £1 billion backroom deal with Northern Ireland’s DUP – a party that makes UKIP look progressive, if such a thing were possible. We’ve seen since that the demands of the DUP, the demands of the UK Government and the demands of the EU appear almost irreconcilable.
It’s hard to imagine a more inept government in its approach to things like Brexit. Indeed, on the week of the first Brexit negotiations, I imagined what the media would have said had the Scotland Government approached the independence campaign with the same blundering ignorance that the UK has done with Brexit. There’s still time for Chapter 2 of this story to be written. There’s plenty of material to go into it now.
July was a month of economic analysis and explainers here on The Common Green. Early in the month, the Scottish Conservatives did their best to drum up a PR campaign ahead of expected news that the Scottish economy was entering a technical recession.
They ended the week trying to duck and spin as the figures came out against that prediction. My analysis of the figures and what they actually meant may not have made for the happiest of reading but they certainly went into more detail than any of the party soundbites.
More seriously though, July also saw news that – for the first time since the second world war – life expectancy in England had NOT increased on the previous year. The sudden slowdown in increased life expectancy started almost on the eve of the beginning of Tory Austerity policies in 2010. Whilst correlation is by no means causation, I don’t think anyone has been able to come up with any better reason.
Finally, news came in that month that the much vaunted protections granted to the Scottish Parliament in the wake of the independence referendum were being rolled back. The “Great” Repeal Bill which was to bring EU law back into UK law was announced but there was a glaring issue for the devolved parliaments. Under the devolution acts it was agreed that everything that was not specifically reserved to Westminster would be devolved to those parliaments. This meant that areas like fishing in Scottish waters were rightly within the jurisdiction of the Scottish Parliament even though those laws had been ceded to the EU. This meant that they should come back directly TO the Scottish Parliament upon Brexit. But no, in their “wisdom”, the UK was going to hold on to such powers in the name of getting a “good deal for the whole of the UK”. If you suspect that this means that Scottish fisheries might be sold off to the highest bidder…then you may not be wrong.
Looking back on it, I must have been in a particularly cheerful mood in August. The month started with me comparing the UK economy to the board game Monopoly and deciding that I’d rather take my chances with the latter over the former.
I also stuck my teeth again into the thorny problem of Scottish GDP and intra-UK trade (especially with regard to oil). It’s easy for social media to get ahead of itself whenever figures start flying around on these topics and misunderstandings abound but I like to think that I can help translate some of these data releases into something a bit more human readable.
August was an important month on the Common Weal front. I published a substantial paper on social security options for an independent Scotland which received significant coverage in the press and caught the attention of the Scottish Government at a time when they were considering options for their new devolved social security powers. The minister for social security, Jeanne Freeman, has been working to design the background infrastructure for those devolved powers specifically so that they can be easily expanded as either more control is devolved or we become independent and I have received assurance that this paper has been very closely read by her and others within Holyrood. You can watch a hustings on social security involving both of us here.
And then we got to the highlight of the month…nay, the political YEAR. When everyone gets excited about GERSmas!
As it was, the actual GERS figures for 2016-17 didn’t really contain much in the way of excitement or surprise. Everyone argued about the size of Scotland’s deficit again. Almost everyone ignored the fact that much of it is caused by the deep systemic inequality of the UK and lack of control that the Scottish government has to actually make meaningful change. There’s always next year.
The Scottish Parliament reopened after recess and the SNP took to the stage with their program for Government and I can tell you that the Common Weal office were hooked on the broadcast. As one email to us put it later “It’s a Common Weal program for government”.
The First Minister announced that they were adopting our 2016 proposals for a Scottish National Investment Bank and would be investigating a Universal Basic Income – as explored in my social security paper the previous month. Further good news was to be found on environmental policy and childcare with movement towards our recommendations on both those fronts too.
Remember the GERS stushie kicked up a few months back? It ended up playing into an inquiry into the state of economic data in Scotland run by the Scottish Government’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee to which I was invited to present evidence.
(Starting from 1:25:00 in this video)
Prof Murphy was also invited to speak at a few days prior (along with others from various sectors) and I was pleased to see that many of Common Weal’s recommendations were highlighted in the summary of the meetings.
Away from Common Weal, I also spent a day touring a an eco-house in East Kilbride.
Don’t let the look fool you (in fact, fooling you with the look was part of the idea of the design). This is a near-passively heated house that is pretty much self-sustaining in its energy generation and use. The annual bill to heat and light it is just £69. Yes. Exactly.
And yet the technology to build it is neither new (most of it uses 19th century thermodynamic principles) nor expensive (the house cost just 2% more to build than a similar sized house built “conventional” standards. It would make that back in a year or two in energy savings). All new houses should be built to this standard or above. Private developers won’t do it left to their own devices. It’ll take the government upping regulations to ensure it. They should. They must.
Finally for the month, I also managed to find time to relax with a good book. J. J. Patrick’s Alternative War paints a terrifyingly plausible vision of Russian interference in Western politics. I’m still not entirely convinced that the motive is there for them to do so but the means are very much worth paying attention to and guarding against.
The month that Scotland said Frack Off! This was an international newsworthy event.
Scotland would take steps to secure its environmental future and take another step towards weaning itself off of the fuel of the last century. Of course, the Tories only cared about the revenue and the rents extracted from the landed estates. I doubt they’d be so concerned with the inevitable economic collapse that would hit fracked regions the moment the wells dried up and moved on. Sure, the initial announcement was for the weakest possible form of a “ban” and it would have only taken a change of energy minister to reverse it but pressure from the Greens and Labour managed to ensure that a vote in Parliament would have to be won before the ban could be repealed.
Another busy month. First, the publication of another one of my White Paper reports. This time I explored the structure and function of a Scottish Central Bank.
The history of central banking just in the UK, never mind the rest of the world, shows that there’s little in the way of a single “correct” model of central banking but instead several options which depend on one’s outlook. I’d quite like to see a bit more democracy involved in a Scottish bank. Even if we continue to appoint the governor and let the main policy and implementation committee hire itself from a pool of mainly bankers and academic economists, I’d like to see a stakeholder committee made up of the demos of the Scottish populace – trade unionists, third sector representatives, industrial experts etc – which holds at least advisory status within the bank. Several countries already do something similar.
The Scottish Government announced that it was going to examine the issue of income tax in Scotland ahead of its December budget. It invited all of the parties to submit their preferred income tax rates and bands and I set to the task of comparing them.
The Scottish Independence Convention invited me back to speak at their November conference. If talking about polling data to 800 people got me a nervous, being asked to speak to over 1,600 people in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall was beyond my ken. The topic this time? Scotland’s finances and asking if we really could afford to be an independent country (hint: we can).
The talk was received spectacularly well and, again, with not a little shock at some of the more damning figures like the UK’s regional inequality. Thank you to everyone who sent messages or came up to speak to me after the talk. Many of you said that I had been one of the highlights of the day.
The Brexit debacle continued apace. November saw the revelation that the Repeal Bill was to drop the EU’s Precautionary Principle from its health and safety standards (perhaps to pave the way towards a trade deal with the USA?). I broke down why such precautions are important.
(Oh, and to finish off the month there was also a bit of a comment about the news that an American actress was to marry a retired British soldier. The media seemed to think that was important so I had to mention it.)
The final month of the year and with it, the Scottish Budget for 2018-19. As expected, income tax was high on the agenda. Fending off Tory attacks that Scotland was the “highest taxed part of the UK”, the government reduced income tax on the lower tax bands whilst increasing them on the higher bands. Scotland now has the most steeply progressive income tax in the UK. Of course, the changes were only of the order of 1% each way so we’re not getting too excited yet. As I mentioned in an article in The National, it was far more a political move than an economic one but it shows a willingness to use powers and a direction of travel which could well be continued.
And so, finally, we get to the last post of the year and it was a continuation of the previous one in many ways. Whenever people talk about tax, it is inevitable that discussion of the Laffer Curve comes up. This is the principle that there is an “optimum” rate for any tax and that sometimes (so the Tories say) you can reduce a tax and end up with more revenue.
This is one of these economic concepts which often comes up in Parliament and in the news but unless you’re up to speed on the jargon it can be difficult to follow along. This post was met favourably by readers here and I asked folk if they wanted to see more explainer type posts in the future. It seems that folk out there do indeed have an appetite for this kind of thing. You also want to be able to explain it to others, either around the dinner table or while out knocking doors.
So I’m going to let you in on a secret project I’ve been working on in my spare time. I’m in the process of writing a book on this kind of political economics and that Laffer Curve article was adapted from one chapter from it. It’ll be an A-Z style handbook explaining the buzzwords you see on the media all laid out in straightforward language with as little maths and jargon as I can get away with. The topics are likely to include Inflation, Budget deficits, Money, Inequality, Taxation. That kind of thing. I can’t give you a publication date yet but I shall keep you posted as it happens. You’ll probably see a few more chapter previews here on the blog as the writing progresses.
Happy New Year
So that was 2017 on The Common Green. Thank you again to everyone who came to visit this year and I do hope you stick around next year too. I continue to enjoy writing my rants and ramblings and I’m glad to see that you enjoy reading them.
All that remains to be said now is to wish you all a very convivial Hogmanay and a very Happy New Year.