Withdrawing Agreement

“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” – Sir David Frost

I was preparing this week to talk about the “Meaningful Vote” in the House of Commons which would have ratified or rejected Theresa May’s woefully inadequate Brexit deal.

A parody timeline of the Brexit negotiations. An incomprehensible tangle of flow lines point to scenarios such as "We're screwed", "Bring back Nick Clegg" and "Jacob Rees-Mogg as PM".

But things have progressed somewhat since I started planning that post. In a direction not necessarily to the advantage of the UK government. Theresa May, Strong and Stable, took her deal from the table.  She started into the face of the humiliation of losing a vote possibly by a triple digit majority and ran away to try to renegotiate with the EU – who have already said that renegotiation is not possible. If it turns out that they were not entirely solid on that principle, then they’ll surely exact a high price for any changes.

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Fishing Lines

“Teach all men to fish, but first teach all men to be fair. Take less, give more. Give more of yourself, take less from the world. Nobody owes you anything, you owe the world everything.” – Suzy Kassem

A political declaration has been published jointly by the UK Government and EU which aims to take the first small steps along the very long road between where we are right now with the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement out to the final trade deal and future relationship between the UK and EU beyond the expected transition period post March 2019.

Others will go through the whole thing in detail with far more competence than I can manage. I particularly recommend Ian Dunt’s Twitter thread here.

I do want to comment on one are in particular because it has already caused more than a bit of a fight up here in Scotland and as it does a good job of highlighting the political divisions involved in Brexit in certain interesting ways. Let’s discuss fishing.

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The UK/Iceland “Cod Wars”: The UK is no stranger to getting into a fight over fish

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Transition Timelines

“Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.” – Denis Waitley

Robin McAlpine wrote an interesting article for his CommonSpace column this week. In it, he congratulates the response to the SNP’s National Assemblies especially the response of the attendees to our own campaign for an independent Scotland to establish a currency by day one of independence. Having spoken to the Common Weal activists who were there for us, and from my own experiences talking to groups around the country, I know how overwhelming the feeling is in favour of our position.

The Ideas Board from the Edinburgh National Assembly.

This is not to say that the feeling is unanimous though and a significant line of questioning is arising around Common Weal’s policy around the area of what this means for the transition period between a successful independence referendum and the formal date of independence. Some have voiced concern about our plan to take a full three years from the referendum to build the institutions that we need before becoming independent. So I want to lay out precisely why we have proposed this by contrasting it with other proposals on the table. I certainly wish to refute any claim that we’ve been somehow misleading in our campaign by trying to hide or downplay our three year timetable. After all, it’s right there on paragraph one of page one of our book How to Start a New Country (which you can buy or download for free here).

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We Need To Talk About: The Growth Commission Report

If this is a discussion document – It’s time to start discussing it.

The Growth Commission’s long-awaited report is finally out and will surely take some time to fully digest. It has been described as a discussion document and a starting point for the revitalised case for independence; not the final word on SNP policy or national trajectory.

In many ways, the report covers ground now very familiar to campaigners in the independence debate. We’re all now quite familiar with the deep and systemic flaws of the UK’s economic system especially its regional inequality which, quite frankly, is embarrassing when compared to neighbouring countries in Europe.

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(Source: Eurostat)

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An Unequal Kingdom

“A system of government as close to federalism as you can have in a nation where one part forms 85% of the population” – Gordon Brown, 2014

The “F-word” is rearing its head again in Scottish politics. Federalism. An idea sometimes presented as a “credible” alternative to Scottish independence and a way of granting Scotland greater autonomy over its own affairs whilst maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, it’s also an idea that is rarely presented in any greater detail than that previous sentence.

Both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have flirted with this idea throughout their history and have been doing so again recently. In an attempt to raise the level of debate about this subject, I have just co-authored my latest policy paper for Common Weal with long-time constitutional activist Isobel Lindsay which you can read here or by clicking the image below. Isobel also has an article in the Sunday Herald which you can read here.

Unequal Kingdom Cover

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Irrigating the Data Desert

“Why speculate when you can calculate?” – John Baez, American mathematical physicist

Last week saw the release of Common Weal’s latest policy paper, Scotland’s Data Desert, which examined the gaps in statistical data for Scotland and called for a Scottish Statistics Agency to help fill them.

We weren’t the only ones studying the problem of the dearth of data in Scotland. As part of a year-long program of research into this topic, we got involved with the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee who had launched their own public consultation looking specifically at the state of economic data in Scotland.

Our response to that consultation led to us being invited to present evidence directly to the committee in September 2017.

The final report from the committee’s investigations was published a few days ago and we are very pleased to say that many of our recomendations have been accepted in the conclusions of the report.

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Scotland’s Data Desert

My latest policy paper for Common Weal – Scotland’s Data Desert – has just been published and can be read here or by clicking the image below. There has also been coverage of the report in The National here and here.

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As a region of the UK, Scotland is in many ways better served by data gathering and analysis than its counterparts. However, as Scotland takes greater control over domestic issues and as the constitutional debate continues to look towards a future in which Scotland takes full responsibility for its own affairs the question is raised as to whether even this level of data provision is adequate for current or future needs – especially in a world where data becomes ever more vital in the development and support of policy. Well served though Scotland may be as a region, as a country it remains a relative “data desert” compared to nearby independent countries.

Many times we’ve watched as politicians and activists have misused data in the public sphere. Sometimes this manifests as a simple misunderstanding of what the data actually says (As when people ask how much of Scotland’s trade leaves the UK via “English ports”). Sometimes though, it’ll be used to make a political point in ways that the data doesn’t really support (such as discussions which use GERS to project beyond what it actually says on Scotland’s finances). There have also been instances of policies being implemented on the basis of limited evidence or of policies being implemented and then left to run without any program in place to monitor their effectiveness.

My latest policy paper for Common Weal is the culmination of over a year of research into the gaps and limitations of data provision in Scotland and discussion with people within the data sectors and civil service in Scotland and the UK. As a political lobbying and research organisation, we are – like many others – dependent on access to data to be able to inform our work and many times we have hit barriers where key data couldn’t be released or simply did not exist.

A Scottish Statistics Agency could help address many of these issues by expanding, co-ordinating and codifying data gathering within Scotland.

An independent Scotland will certainly need its own data and statistics agency but this isn’t just an independence issue as it could be done right now in a devolved Scotland and there are compelling reasons to do so. As said, Scotland already goes above and beyond the UK’s data gathering in many areas but there is certainly room to grow further.

The SSA could well take the form of a monolithic, centralised agency – a bit like the UK’s ONS – in which most or all policy level data is gathered by or for them. It could equally take the form of a more decentralised system whereby a central body co-ordinates and issues targets and directives but the actual gathering could be done by specialised bodies, statisticians embedded within government departments and even by academics and think-tanks. If this model was employed then a system of “kitemarks” could be used to mark data which meets the stringent Code of Practice which would identify data as being good enough for policy-making.

This kitemark system is already used by the UK Statistics Agency (the governing body which regulates the ONS) but could be used to either reflect a Scotland which applies even higher standards than the UK or could be expanded to identify data from outside of government (such as academics and think tanks) which meet those standards. This could allow for greater prespectives to influence government but could also limit the misuse of data by third parties by setting a benchmark to meet.

Of course, this isn’t just a problem of gathering data. As said above, often the data is gathered but difficult to find, difficult to manipulate or cannot be easily combined with other data due to conflicts in their methodologies. Where data can be combined, it has been a reported problem that different groups may be doing the same processing independently. This increases the chance of errors creeping in and also, crucially, results in a lot of time wasted between those groups.

An SSA could therefore be charged with ensuring that policy data meets high standards of trust, transparency, usability and consistency. It could also be responsible for maintaining a central data portal – much like Eurostat or the Gapminder Project – which would allow access to as much data as possible but can do it in a way which makes that data easy to view whether the viewer is an interested member of the public or an expert researcher.

People will, of course, ask how much an SSA would cost and, in truth, the answer is difficult unless we know the precise model – it’s harder to count the budget of a decentralised model than a centralised one – but where Scotland’s proportional share of the UK’s spend on statistics may be around £15 million, other nearby countries like Denmark and Sweden spend several times this figure and create several hundred highly skilled jobs in the process. Even these sums are comparatively small in terms of national budgets but will surely pay for themselves in terms of better targeted, better monitored and, quite simply, better policies.


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