We Need To Talk About: Billionaires

“There is no such thing as philanthropy, because the money that the billionaires pretend to donate, belong to the people anyways.” ― Abhijit Naskar

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

The villagers lived in hopeless fear of the dragon. They worked hard to provide for themselves but it was so hard when the dragon owned the land under their feet, owned the rooves over their heads, owned the tools they used to till the fields and owned the store where they bought the things they couldn’t make for themselves and even owned the carts they used to bring things to market. Everything the villagers did fed the dragon in the end. It took a share at every step of the way and its hoard grew ever higher. The villagers had once tried to slay the dragon – it was a hard fight and cost the lives of many of them – but in the end, the dragon’s offspring just slid onto the top of the hoard and things carried on as they had before. They asked their mayor to tax the dragon, but the dragon whispered promises of power into the mayor’s ear and gave him baubles to make sure it didn’t happen. The villagers tried to vote out the mayor but the dragon whispered into the ears of some of the villagers and told them that if they worked really hard in precisely the way that the dragon didn’t, then they too could become dragons themselves. Even when the mayor was voted out – all the dragon had to do was whisper to the new one and make sure things were never so bad for it in the time it took to ensure the next mayor was more compliant. And so the villagers worked hard – harder than ever before even as the storms that ruined their harvests became stronger and more frequent – and the dragon’s hoard got larger.

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The Unreliable Kingdom

“Every scientific statement is provisional. Politicians hate this. How can anyone trust scientists? If new evidence comes along, they change their minds.” – Terry Pratchett

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

The UK signalled this week that it was about to unilaterally pull out of parts of a major international treaty with its nearest neighbour, regardless of the costs of doing so. One of those costs will surely be damage to the reputation that is critical for upholding other international agreements and in the price that may be extracted by opposite partners in future deals and treaties knowing that the UK is willing to break from them when it suits.

I’m talking, of course, about the recent announcement that the UK will try to unilaterally rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol which dictates how the EU interacts with the UK across their mutual land border. The Brexit agreement was always going to come to some kind of impasse like this. The UK’s own self-written “red lines” made this clear even back in 2018 when they were first announced.

In short, the UK demanded three things of the Brexit Agreement:

1) England was to leave the Single Market and Customs Union (thus creating a customs border between England and the EU).

2) Northern Ireland was to remain within the Single Market and Customs Union (thus no customs border between NI and Ireland).

3) Northern Ireland had to get the same Brexit deal as England (thus no customs border between NI and England).

There was never any way of achieving all three of these simultaneously (and, incidentally, the reason I didn’t mention Scotland and Wales above is that from a UK perspective they don’t really matter and can be safely ignored – this was doubly the case in 2017-2019 when the 13 Scottish Tory MPs’ loyalty ironically meant that they mattered to the Government a lot less than the 10 DUP MPs who signed a cooperation agreement to support Theresa May’s minority Government). The way to keep NI and Ireland border-free (an overriding priority on both sides) was to guarantee red-line 2). That meant that either England could stay in the Single Market or it could create a border in the Irish sea. England wanted to do neither.

But, when push came to shove (and “shove” meant Boris Johnson ramming through a leadership contest and the 2019 General Election on the promised to “Get Brexit Done”) then it meant choosing to drop option 3) and erecting a border in the Irish Sea. This, of course, meant selling out those DUP MPs who held up the previous government but, now that Johnson had regained a Tory majority – they didn’t matter now and, like Scotland and Wales, could once again be safely ignored. Party loyalty would do the rest – ensuring that the Brexit Deal would pass the commons regardless of whether or not those voting for it had understood or even read it and people who were promised by politicians that there would be no customs paperwork involved in moving goods from one part of the UK to another ended up being surprised by how much paperwork would become involved.

Scotland should be watching how this potential trade war plays out because we will inevitably be in a very similar situation when it comes to our own independence. The Anglo-Scottish land border and how trade moves across it is likely to be one of the most pressing and fraught negotiating points of our eventual separation agreement – though, of course, Common Weal has already published a policy paper covering much of the ground work that needs to be done here –  and Scotland will end up looking like a very different country depending on whether we decide to align our trade more with a British Customs Union, with the European Union or stay unaligned to both. I’m not going to use this article to advocate for any of those options right now though I would say that we almost certainly lack the data required to make an informed choice.

When whoever forms “Team Scotland” and sits across the table from the representatives of the remaining UK to negotiate our departure we need to consider that the UK is not a state that keeps its word when it comes to agreements like this. This simply fact should underpin the strategy that Scotland employs when it goes in and lays out its negotiating position.

I’ve written about the process of negotiating the separation of debts and assets. It formed one of my earliest papers for Common Weal. It was a keystone topic in the Scottish Independence Convention’s Transitions series and most recently I have posted an extended cut of that SIC paper to this blog. Those papers and the background material behind them are vital reading when it comes to understanding how these negotiations have taken place in other countries that have made the leap to independence.

In 2014 and up till now, we have approached the negotiations with a kind of implicit understanding that the UK was a reliable actor and would keep its promises. We could happily take on a portion of UK debt and exchange for a fair exchange of UK assets. We could share public services for a while and let the rUK continue to manage aspects of the Scottish civil service post-independence until our own departments were up and running. We could grant rUK our entire foreign aid budget and let them spend it on our behalf so that the beneficiaries wouldn’t be put out by our departure – the UK wouldn’t allow that funding to be misused for political projects after all.

One thing that comes through strongly in the historical precedents with these separation negotiations is that the more one party asks from or of the other party, the harder it is to achieve and the higher the price that has to be paid for the compromise. This must go double if a compromise is reached and paid for but then the other party reneges on the deal.

We’ve shown that what Scotland actually needs from rUK is comparatively slight. Our “population share” of the UK’s overall debt might total something in the region of £160 billion but the total identifiable assets that Scotland might need from rUK might only come to around £50 billion or even less – and most of that is military equipment that could be loaned or bought from elsewhere either in a pinch or if we decided that Scotland’s military needs didn’t suit what the UK had to offer (A Scotland that signed TPNW would certainly have no need for our “share” of the UK’s nuclear weapons of mass civilian slaughter, for instance).

The best way to secure Scotland’s independence in a way that both ensures that we get what we need from rUK and doesn’t leave us vulnerable to them unilaterally changing the deal at a future date is to avoid, as much as possible, giving them anything they can change. This “Zero Option” negotiating stance means using the time between the independence referendum and actual Independence Day to build up all of the civil infrastructure we need to run a nation-state and thus avoiding having to “share” or buy in civil services from rUK. It also means launching a Scottish currency as soon as possible so as to avoid being beholden either to a formal currency union or to the limits of Sterlingisation and having to plead for UK decisions on currency to not impact Scotland too much. This also means not accepting any share of UK debt that isn’t backed by an equivalent share of assets (effectively “mortgaging” the assets we need against that debt) and avoiding anything like the SNP’s current policy of an “Annual Solidarity Payment” that would see perpetual payments made to the UK without being linked to any debt that could be “paid off”. Finally, it means minimising the quantity of assets we require from the UK in the first place. As said above, many of the assets that Scotland could think about acquiring might be unfit for purpose (like big ticket military equipment like the nukes or aircraft carriers), may be near the end of their operational lifespan (like most of the rest of the navy) or may not suit the kinds of policies that Scotland might wish to introduce (the UK Government said that it couldn’t introduce a hardship payment to people because of IT issues – if true, Scotland should want to avoid inheriting the UK’s obviously broken tax IT systems).

This stance doesn’t mean total isolationism. I have no problems with Scottish and rUK collaborating on issues of common interest – indeed, I encourage it – but these collaborations must be undertaken on the basis of two equal nations working in partnership. Not as one being dragged along by the other because they control the civil servants or Scotland being hung out to dry because the UK decided once again to alter the deal.

The UK has often acted as if it was still the Imperial Majesty on the world stage and has often been accorded a level of respect and benefit of the doubt by its counterparts that it either has not valued or has actively taken advantage of. Scotland, as we enter that stage with our own voice, must be wary of making the same mistake.

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Solarpunk: Growing the Hope We Deserve

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

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. – William Gibson

So began William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer and so began what is now known as the Cyberpunk genre. So began countless other generation-defining books, films, works of art, technology inspired by the ideas the genre explored. So began me – 1984 was the year I was born. Cyberpunk is my generation.

Cyberpunk is a world of crushing dystopia. Tortured air and acid rains bleach the life and soul out of polluted cities. There is no society or community here. An individual is one against millions, toiling thanklessly to meet a quota set by an uncaring human if you’re lucky; an equally uncaring AI if you’re not. This is a world where Megacorporations rule to the point that even Governments can do little to prevent them sucking the last dregs of the world’s resources into their ever growing, ever insatiable maws. Technology can provide you with the kinds of miracles that once founded religions but only at a terrible cost. And yet there are those who still work at the edges of this world, or beneath it, or hidden within it, who still fight for what hope remains in the world. Cyberpunk is often about celebrating the rebels fighting against crushing authority. Those who refuse to accept that which others tell them is “inevitable”. Victories are sometimes fleeting, sometimes they are indeed entirely futile, but victories are still possible. Hope can still be found in the “desert of the real”, even if it is a grimy, flawed and compromised kind of hope.

But in Gibson’s opening it is a curiously analogue metaphor that defines the digital frontier of cyberpunk. A sky as grey as analogue static. You don’t have to be much younger than me to be someone who doesn’t understand that metaphor in the same way that I can. The UK – by far not the frontrunner in this particular technological race – completed its television digital switchover a decade ago. For generations now and those to come the dead channel of television will be a brilliant sky blue.

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(Source: Wallpaper Cave)

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Post-Nationalist Scotland

“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it….” ― George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday my wife and I took part in a fascinating radio interview looking at how people, particularly migrants to Scotland, have come to support independence. I hope I’ll be able to share it with you in a month or so when it’s due to be published though at this stage I have no idea how much – if any – of our conversation will make the final cut (the programme is expected to be about ten minutes long, we talked for over an hour and the interviewer spoke to several people apart from us). As one might expect the conversation looked, in part, at the nature of Nationalism in Scotland and how that is viewed by both migrants and the countries from which they came. That part of the conversation got me thinking about my own views on Nationalism and where Scotland is, or could go, as part of our journey towards independence.

Be assured, that this isn’t going to be another lazy attack on Nationalism as we have seen levelled against proponents of Scottish Independence (particularly by those who wave their own flags just as hard under the more sanitised name of Patriotism or National Unity). Indeed, I shall defend at least the logic of Nationalism later in this piece. But I shall lay out why I think it only takes us so far in the philosophy of independence and set out a proposition that there is perhaps a hint of what an independent Scotland could look like in a post-nationalist world.

(And yes, I appreciate the irony of writing this on a day when a lot of folk are watching groups of men defined by their national identity kick a ball around. I never was one for Football.)

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The Road to Independence Part One – A Democratic Event

“There is always a choice…Or, perhaps, an alternative. You see, I believe in freedom, Mr Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all others are based.” – Havelock Vetinari, Going Postal.

You would have thought that Lockdown would have opened up more time for me to look after my blog but instead Common Weal dove headlong into its busiest session of policy-making we’ve ever seen. Between pushing for more effective Covid strategy, analysing the impact of the pandemic on the Scottish economy and launching our post-Covid reconstruction plan I’ve been writing everywhere BUT here.

But most of that has now been completed and I’m currently on holiday which means that instead of writing about politics for work I now get a little time to write about politics for FUN!

Over the next few blog posts I intend to lay out what I see as the main strategic block on the development of the Scottish Independence campaign. Namely, a focus on developing “mandates” for another Scottish independence referendum rather than working out how to actually get one, where to go if one doesn’t happen and what to do after one happens.

This kind of thinking is long overdue but in the absence of it coming from the Scottish Government I’d like to offer my own thoughts and analysis to and for the sake of the independence movement.

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Substantial parts of this series will be drawn from Common Weal’s strategy for gaining independence Within Our Grasp which you can read here.

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How to Give Money to Everyone

“The conditional programs inherently use poverty as a threat. That’s Cruel. Shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves?” ― Karl Widerquist

The mounting crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing countries to adopt unprecedented measures to combat it. In addition to the public health measures such as physical distancing (not social distancing. At times like this we need MORE social solidarity) we’re also seeing unprecidented measures being deployed to salvage an economy that has practically ground to a halt. Unlike any economic recession since possibly the 1930s we’re seeing a combined demand and supply shock. The virus makes it hard to make and sell things and everyone is at home in quarantine so no-one is buying the things anyway.

This isn’t true of all sectors of course and a great deal of effort is being expended to keep essential services like food deliveries running. In addition to my friends working in the health service and my family working in the care sector, my hat goes absolutely off to my friends working in the food sector. When the day comes that we’re allowed to buy a round for each other again, they’ve all more than earned a few from me.

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Mission Expendable

“Be sure you know the conditions of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.” – The Bible, Proverbs 27: 34-35

The Guardian reports today that an adviser to the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer – remember that he’s in the job now because the previous incumbent resigned because of a political fight involving who controls his advisers – is claiming that the UK’s fishing and farming sectors should be seen as expendable because they only constitute 1% of the UK’s GDP thus only make up something like a rounding error in the national scheme of things. Instead, he claims, the UK should become more like Singapore and just buy in the food we need. While the UK Government is distancing itself from the comments, it’s not the first time that those in those offices have promoted such views.

Let’s have dive into the data to pull out some of the implications of this potential policy.

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As an aside, meet one of my neighbours

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Leave a Light On For EU

“The mistakes that have been committed in foreign policy are not, as a rule, apparent to the public until a generation afterwards.” – Otto von Bismark

At 2300 GMT on Friday 31st January, I will no longer be an EU citizen.

My citizenship, and all of the rights, privileges, protections and responsibilities that it entails, have been stripped from me as a result of a narrow vote three and a half years ago followed by three and a half years of pissing about, general incompetence and an unwillingness to listen to any but the most hardline radicals who practically wallowed in their ignorance of the EU and how it worked.

I accept the “will of the people” in their instruction to the government to leave the EU but this is a very different proposition from accepting how that will was discharged.

Had the Brexit process been conducted competently, then that would have been easier to bear. Instead, we have a litany of self-inflicted disasters piling up with no shame and even no sense of self-awareness on the part of those doing the piling. It’s enough to make one smash their face against their desk.

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The Ever Molding Mandate

“To discover strategy is to fulfill mandate” – Sunday Adelaja

On Sunday Politics Scotland this morning, the new Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack shifted the goalposts again. The 2014 independence referendum has now been declared a “once in a lifetime” event and that even a pro-independence majority in the 2021 Scottish elections or even an outright SNP majority in those elections would be insufficient grounds for him to grant Scotland his permission to self-determine our form of government.

He went even further than this extremist position by stating categorically that he believed that it would be “absolutely unacceptable” for Scotland to hold any such referendum at a time of its choosing and under our own terms – effectively attempting to apply a veto to the Referendums Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament recently.

I think we should have a look at this Tory attempt to stifle Scottish Democracy.

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