Answering Lochgilphead

“Albert grunted. “Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?”
Mort thought for a moment.
“No,” he said eventually, “what?”
There was silence.
Then Albert straightened up and said, “Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve ’em right.”
― Terry Pratchett, Mort

This is a companion piece to my article on a talk I gave to AyeFyne in Lochgilphead in May 2023. Read that article here for context.

I live in Sheltered Housing and already pay £900 a year in Council Tax. How would a Land Tax affect me?

It very likely wouldn’t. A land tax would usually not tax the land under and around a house (the “curtilage” in technical terms. The house and its garden, but not any fields or estates that may exist beyond that). That land is already effectively taxed by the Council Tax. However, we know that the Council Tax is itself deeply unfair. I don’t know the specific circumstances of the questioner’s house and arrangements (i.e. whether they qualify for discounts to Council Tax) but replacing the Council Tax with our proposal for a Property Tax would very likely result in a tax cut. For example, a house in my area worth around £60,000 and in Band A Council Tax would pay around £867 in Council Tax (plus water rates) but would only pay £378 under our Property Tax proposals. On the other hand, a villa worth £600,000 in Band H would see their tax increase from £3,190 to £3,780 while a mansion worth £6 million would see their Council Tax of £3,190 (yes, the same as the house a tenth of its price and only 3.5 times as much as the house 1% its value) rise to £37,800 per year (plus water rates). If the owner of the mansion also owns land then that is where the land tax would also apply.

If, during independence negotiations, Scotland isn’t given a fair share of assets, why should we take on a share of debts?

This is an extremely long and detailed topic better summarised in my blog post here. In short, it’s better not to think of “shares” of assets and debts but to instead think of what Scotland needs out of negotiations. Most of the assets we need are already based permanently in Scotland and will transfer automatically. “Moveable” assets can be transferred on a population share basis but we’d probably be better thinking about what we actually need (e.g. military equipment that meets our security threats rather than just a random assortment of kit) and either “mortgage” it against a share of the UK’s debt or take the debt on ourselves and just buy what we need (which might not be from the UK if, for example, a Norwegian boat or Swedish fighter jet suits our needs better than a UK one).

Could we see a kind of “All of Us First” meter, rating all Scottish policies against Common Weal ideals?

A formal and consistently updating meter would likely be well outwith what we can do with the resources we have though the idea isn’t that far off from metrics such as that published by the Climate Change Committee. We do regularly review Scottish policies (such as the Scottish Government’s recent mini-PfG, the UK Conservative budget, or Labour’s devolution proposals) and we always review them with an “All of Us First” approach.

As you travel round Scotland promoting “Sorted”, do you hear a response of “That’s great, let’s do it” or is it more like “There’s too much power invested in keeping things the way they are”?

The challenges of political lobbying are numerous and great and we don’t always win – at least, not at first – but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time at Common Weal is that everything in politics is impossible until the moment that it becomes inevitable. The barriers ahead of us are there, right up until the moment they are not. But the will remain there if we don’t try at all.

Where are the pressure points for Indy? What are the topics that could win people over?

It might be strange to think of it this way but I know precisely the kind of UK that could be one that would make me vote No to Indy. It’s one that is radically more democratic – in line with European norms, one that demonstrates confidence by giving up its nuclear weapons and signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, one that takes its obligations under the climate emergency seriously and signs up to a Green New Deal. I don’t believe that the UK is capable of any of these things and certainly none of the current Unionist parties are proposing anything like it. That’s a major pressure point for me and I’m certain that if you actually seriously offer that future to Scotland AND show the will and willingness to follow through and deliver on that promise then a majority of the country would agree with me. The problem for me right now isn’t in the will – all of the major pro-Indy parties push in roughly that direction to a greater or lesser degree – but in the willingness – none of them are actually offering plans such as Sorted or our Common Home Plan. Triangulating towards a mythical “centre” of vague platitudes that no-one disagrees with isn’t nearly as powerful as trying to deliver on a proposal that many more actually do.

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Appealing To The Centre

“I’m a true centrist: my beliefs put me in the middle… You know what happens to people who drive in the middle of the road? They get run over.” – Rob Lowe

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


You’ve probably heard the line at some point from someone in the upper echelons of the independence campaign. That we need to “appeal to the centre” of Scottish politics and that your radical ideas like publicly owned energy, local democracy or even just the idea of actively campaigning for independence are, at best, an inconvenience to the Movement or, at worst, are a liability and that you’re actively driving undecided voters away with your antics.

What we must do instead, we are told, is to “appeal to the centre”. We must compromise on our values, our policies and the very narrative upon which we ourselves were drawn to support independence in favour of one that is unassailable in its blandness and .
“The Centre”, you see, is a group of sensible voters who only vote for sensible policies. They’re also absolutely terrified of change so anything that “spooks” the poor, timid creatures will have them pelting away from you as fast as you can pull out your canvassing clipboard.

What we need to do is to make independence as absolutely bland as possible. A “soft indy”, if you will. One that actually won’t change much at all. Just one fewer election every few years. It’ll be fine, those in power say. Just let us take care of everything. Centrism offers balance from extremes and a firm hand at a wheel that would otherwise spin out of control. Not that they’ll be able to articulate where they’re taking you…but that’s not important. Don’t worry about that. You’ll get there safely.
Has anyone ever asked “The Centre” what they think of this? I’m not sure those who want to do the appealing have, though some of the answers are out there.

Who are The Centre?

There’s a useful way of thinking about the spectrum of voters when it comes to independence sentiment. At either extreme, there are hardcore, ideological voters – often nationalists in their own way. They will almost certainly vote. Will almost certainly vote Yes or No depending on their lean. Will almost certainly never, under any circumstances, change their mind. You probably know folk like this. Let’s be honest, if you’re reading this column chances are pretty decent that you are one (though I doubt there will be very many hardcore No voters here. Say hi if you are one. I’d love to hear your side of things). These two extremes are about as far apart from each other in terms of polices and shared goals – which, of course, makes it all the harder for respective campaigners in each camp to talk to each other.

Closer to the middle of the spectrum there are the less convinced or those more open to change or to be convinced. On the Yes side, you’ll find people who have perhaps come to that camp based on discussions about opportunities for change, or the chance to correct injustices. Perhaps convinced of the merits of nationalism even if they don’t define themselves as nationalists per se (or didn’t before they were convinced). Despite my position in the indy movement and my years of campaigning, I put myself somewhere in this camp. My views are, as befitting my background in science, always provisional and subject to testing and change. I’m convinced of the case for indy…but I never take my position for granted.

Then there are the camps who sit in “The Centre. The “undecided” and “soft No” voters who are often one and the same in same way that “not proven” and “not guilty” are shades with the same acquittal. Whether they are convinceable but not yet convinced, or tempted but not willing to take the chance on the day, their vote – if they cast one – is the same.

Indy in the Middle

As some will be aware, I’ve been tracking indy sentiment in Scotland not just at the surface headline level – which if that’s the only thing you look at, you’d believe that the indy landscape is basically unchanged since 2014 – 50% plus or minus a few points here or there. Underneath, the story is far more interesting, with large shifts within various demographics. The “age gap” has widened, with younger voters now much more pro-indy than older voters…but only because older voters are shifting to Yes more slowly than younger voters (there’s also little evidence of that extremely ageist trope that we just need to wait for old No voters to “die off”). More voters of “pro-union” parties are themselves pro-indy than you think (there are more pro-indy Tory voters in Scotland than paid up members of the party). “New Scots” have completely flipped from some of the strongest No voters in 2014 to some of the strongest Yes voters – more so than Scots born in Scotland at this point.

But there’s another pattern that comes out of many of these polls. If you look at a question that is particularly divisive down indy lines then you see that truly undecided voters look a lot more like Yes voters than they do No voters (Have a close look at the data tables here for some examples of this).

This is backed up by research that was conducted a few years ago that found that the main difference between a “soft-Yes” voter and a “soft-No” voter (or the undecided in the middle) wasn’t a shift in attitudes (of the kind that separates Yes voters from extreme No voters) but simply a difference in perceived Risk vs Reward. Someone like myself likely sees the rewards of indy and considers them worth the risks while also seeing a lack of reward in the No campaign’s offer and keenly feeling the risks of remaining in the UK. Someone just over the centre line from me likely feels the risks of Indy a bit more keenly than I do, or perhaps the rewards are just a bit less visible.

The politics of a bland, beige, managerial “Don’t worry about it” Centrism doesn’t improve the reward as it very intentionally doesn’t give anyone anything to vote for. It doesn’t even reduce the perceived risk. “Wait…are you saying that I should be worried about something? Well, I wasn’t before but…”

The Radical Centre

And the real kicker about this bland plan of Centrism is that when you actually ask people what they want…they can get very radical indeed. They might not believe you if you say you can deliver it – but that’s not the same as not believing your vision.
I know this through my experience with the Scottish Climate Assembly in 2021. This was a group of randomly selected residents of Scotland, balanced by age, gender, income, geography and a host of other factors. They were a balanced and representative sample of Scotland and thus could, as closely as possible, speak for “what Scotland wants” on any given issue. Experts (including myself) were brought in to explain various aspects of the climate emergency and give advice on solutions, policies and ideas. The Assembly discussed them in various groups and seminars and then produced a report of their recommendations to the Scottish Government. To give an idea of the scope, let me tell you about just one of them.

In 2019 when we published our Common Home Plan, we had a quite strong discussion in the team about whether or not to include the idea of an “Externality Tax” – trade border tariff on imported goods to account for the pollution created by their manufacture and transport and to deliberately de-incentivise imports in favour of domestic production. It would do Scotland no good to decarbonise all of our industries and agriculture, only to be undercut by goods brought in by a country that slashed and burned its rainforest and used child labour and coal power to make goods we bought from them. It’s a climate-sensible policy but it flies in the face of decades of “global free-markets” and we thought if any policy would get pushback from the public, it’d be that one.

The 2021 Scottish Climate Assembly not only agreed that this policy was a good idea, 94% of this representative sample of Scotland voted for it. The most radical policy we almost didn’t include in our radical vision for a Green New Deal hit support levels that I doubt we’d see in a poll if the question was “Are puppies cute?”

Please read their recommendations for action and compare what the people of Scotland are calling for on climate compared to what politicians are offering or what they tell us is the best they can do without spooking their not-yet-voters.

The Story of Indy

The story of indy is, I believe, what will make the indy campaign the winning force it should be. Many voters already believe that our vision for an independent Scotland is one that is appealing, one that they agree with at heart and one that is fundamentally at odds with any proactive story offered by the No campaign (that is, the actual vision for Britain being offered to voters, not just the campaign of “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” that is designed to increase the perceived risk of our vision) but it’s one that we haven’t quite convinced some that we can competently deliver or deliver without exceeding their maximum tolerance for risk.
What they will not be convinced by is the kind of valueless “Don’t Worry About It” Centrism that simply tries to make nothing sound as safe as possible.

Especially not when what “The Centre” is actually telling us is that they want what we want, they just want us to tell them it’s worth voting for and that we’re capable of delivering on those promises of a better, independent Scotland.

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Getting Energy Right

Lucretius Corvo: What will happen when [the power gauges] reach the maximum?
Corellus: As my tutors on Mars would say, Captain, the Omnissiah acts mysteriously. The ways of the Motive Force may be understood, from positive to negative and on through the circuit. That which guides it may not.
Lucretius Corvo: You do not know.
Corellus: No. That is what they generally meant when they said that.
Dialogue between Lucretius Corvo and Techmarine Correlus of the Ultramarines. – Guy Haley, Pharos

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

The other week, I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote speech to the Just Transition Partnership’s Reclaiming Our Energy conference where I gave a (not completely impartial, but at least honest) appraisal of the Scottish Government’s draft energy statement. As of the time of writing, the recording of the full conference isn’t yet online (I’ll link to it here when it is) however I included the audio of my presentation in this week’s Policy Podcast.

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The News Where You Are Not

“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here–not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” – Hunter S. Thompson

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

I had a fascinating discussion on the Policy Podcast the other week. I spoke to a couple of our comrades at Melin Drafod, a Welsh pro-indy think tank who recently published a report on the fiscal position of an independent Wales (while they don’t directly reference any of our similar work for an independent Scotland, it’s very interesting to see how the same structural weaknesses in devolution rear their head and how the same international principles and precedents also apply to Wales in similar ways to Scotland).  They also organised a strategy seminar at the weekend attended by Robin on behalf of Common Weal and also by many members of the Welsh independence movement such as Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price. It’s a fascinating discussion and I encourage you all to listen to it.

During the discussion a very interesting question was raised that has been burrowing into my head since. I asked a question about the state of the UK’s media and how it plays its role in the unity of the British State. I reflected that from where I am it looks largely like Scotland has its own local media – much of it fragmented, underfunded or taking its orders from elsewhere, but some of it doing at least as best it can to tell us about what’s happening in Scotland – and then there is the UK media that gives a view of and from London. Never mind that we suffer from a limited outlook on and of the rest of the world, what we often lack is a view of the rest of the UK. I’d hazard that unless you have a specific interest in looking for information about it, you probably don’t really know all that much about what’s going on in Northern Ireland, or Wales, or Cornwall or even right across the border in the North of England (unless you live in the South of Scotland and get ITV Border from Cumbria rather than STV). Not unless whatever is happening is “big enough” to affect London in some way…then it gets noticed. I asked if the view from Wales was similar and my guests more or less confirmed it with the caveat that Scottish local news media is probably stronger than in Wales, especially after the sad demise of their iteration of The National newspaper.

Now here’s the question that has been niggling at me. I can see why things would be set up this way. Paymasters for a highly centralised state with a highly centralised economy probably want to know what is happing around them and around them is London. When cuts come, it’s easier to cut away at the periphery (i.e. everywhere else) and so local media erodes away. It’s also possibly true that the UK’s centralising political agenda is reinforcing itself through that media. What used to be a “Precious Union” of voluntarily associating states is being rapidly reframed as a unitary state of “Britain” and a unitary state requires a unitary message over and above any rustic notions of regional distinctiveness. So by broadcasting the same “London-First” message out to the provinces, you can ensure that they all hear the same message, sing the same song and believe in the same vision for the country. This whole state of affairs was hilariously and wonderfully illustrated in James Robertson’s poem “The News Where You Are”.

But is that strategy working? In one sense, keeping England relatively ignorant about Scotland (except insofar as the “national” message that Scotland is heavily subsidised by the UK is starting to stick in the “wrong” places), or Scotland relatively ignorant about Wales or vice versa has its role in dividing us from those who we would otherwise be standing in solidarity with. If we can’t see them, we can’t see our differences, sure, but we also can’t see our common strengths either.

This is something I see done much, much better in countries around – and even across – Europe. Organisations like Arte do a fantastic job of showcasing the best of Europe in a way that really does foster a common sense of “Europeness” because of all of its cultural corners, not in spite of them.
(And if you want a view of Scotland from the continent right now, then I can’t recommend enough their recent documentary on the current bedraggled state of the independence movement and compare it to one by dbate from a couple of years before. The light might be on for Scotland in Europe, but we have to understand what is being illuminated by it)

However the strategy of only broadcasting “the news where we are” might also be reaching its limit. Not only because access to information is generally easier these days (“generally” because access to MISinformation has never been easier and the search engines that act as our primary gatekeeper on the internet are straining under the weight of that misinformation combined with information-free “SEO” techniques and AI-driven confident-but-mindless drivel) but because there might well be another narrative forming in the minds of those who receive that news from where we are not. Namely, that if all of us around the periphery of the UK are seeing only the London-eye view of the “Precious Union” then that becomes our only point of contact with that Union. Then we who, as James Robertson said, can each see who we are end up comparing ourselves to that single point of contact. Of course, none of us really do. And so we start to question why we might want to stay in a union that doesn’t represent us, who we are or who we want to be. Ironically, if the Union celebrated the commonalities of all of us, it might have done more to bring us all together. It might even learn a little about itself and about us in the process and be all the stronger for it.

I’d really like to chew on this idea a bit more. Especially why the centre of the Union appears unable now to do precisely that and instead has resorted simply to trying to deny independence through sheer force of will. If you are involved in media circles and would like to discuss this and other aspects of the media in Britain on the Podcast then please do get in touch. Till then, let’s all try and do a bit more to look out into the world, to find out about our kindred spirits elsewhere and to see the news where we are not.

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On Yer Bike

“A society sufficiently sophisticated to produce the internal combustion engine has not had the sophistication to develop cheap and efficient public transport?’
‘Yes, boss… it’s true. There’s hardly any buses, the trains are hopelessly underfunded, and hence the entire population is stuck in traffic” –  Ben Elton, Gridlock

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

This week’s column has been inspired by a couple of things. The first is Alistair Davidson’s excellent piece on Bella Caledonia talking about Glasgow’s quiet urban transport revolution. The second is my current gripe with South Lanarkshire’s own transport strategy which actively limits my ability to “do the right thing” when it comes to my own transport reform.
(Yes…if you read my article a few weeks ago about my attempts to upgrade my home’s heating system…this article is very much in the same vein).
I have a fairly simply goal that, if achieved, will tell me that the coming transport revolution has reached my corner of semi-rural Scotland. I want to be able to cycle to my nearest town and cycle back with my shopping instead of driving.


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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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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

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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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Here Comes The New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss

“A president cannot defend a nation if he is not held accountable to its laws.” – DaShanne Stokes

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

Look. I’m not in any way going to defend Boris Johnson. The disastrous policies – from his disorganised Brexit to his Rwanda human trafficking scheme – are causing real harm, his Covid policies have killed over 200,000 people while enriching his cronies and his constant power grabbing have pulled power into the UK Executive (read: the PM) and have disrupted our ability to vote freely, destabilised the autonomy of the devolved Parliaments, the primacy of the UK Parliament and he has torn up the last tattered shreds of what passes for the UK Constitution. He should not go down in the annals of history as one of the UK’s “great” politicians.

And yet…who comes next is looking very likely to be even worse.


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