Collaboration, Not Competition

“Collaboration has no hierarchy. The Sun collaborates with soil to bring flowers on the earth.” – Amit Ray

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

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This week saw the annual launch of the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government – its stated aims for the next year in Parliament. Usually at this time I’d be taking you through a deep dive of the various policy announcements and what they might mean for Scotland. The truth is though there isn’t really all that much there to dive into. Most of the major programmes mentioned in it (such as the National Care Service or the Circular Economy) have already been announced and are underway and many of the truly new announcements simply aren’t all that exciting. Even I, policy-geek amongst policy-geeks, can’t bring myself to get too excited about the devolution of the Aggregates Levy – the tax paid on taking stones and soil to landfill. It was one of the taxes devolved to Scotland in the wake of Indyref, the Smith Commission and the eventual Scotland Act 2016. The others were Income Tax (significant, but already straining at the seams of what is possible under devolution), Air Passenger Duty (the devolution of which was scrapped because of a potential legal fight with the EU), the assignment of VAT revenues (the devolution of which was scrapped because no-one could work out how to actually do it) and now Aggregates Levy (which will finally be devolved seven years and two Holyrood Elections after the mandate to do so). According to GERS, it’s currently worth around £58 million per year which is almost 1/16 of the estimated margin of error in the calculation of Scotland’s overall tax revenue.

The only other really noteworthy item is that the Scottish Government has finally acceded to the campaign to bring in the kind of tourist tax that almost all of us will be familiar with if we’ve travelled anywhere in Europe. Back in August, I spoke to the National about this kind of tax and mentioned the possibility of using it to fund or subsidise public transport and that perhaps tourists could be granted a free travel pass when they arrive in return.

But let’s talk about the most important policy announcement in this year’s PfG – so important that someone decided to leak it to the press ahead of time. The Scottish Government has decided to bring in an emergency rent freeze – backdated to the day of the PfG, though the legislation still needs to pass through Parliament. At the time of writing, we don’t yet know many of the details of the freeze itself including whether or not the Government will subsidise landlords for implementing the freeze. The news report announcing the leak mentioned a source who said that if the cost of the freeze was met by landlords then it would cost the Government nothing – this certainly suggests that if the landlords don’t cover the freeze then the Government may look at giving them partial or full compensation in the way that Liz Truss may be about to do to energy companies. It’s difficult to say how much this could cost as the freeze may only be for a limited duration (say, till March 2023) and many landlords – particularly in the public sector – only raise rates anyway once per Financial Year in April and some private landlords either do the same or weren’t planning to raise rates anyway (will they claim otherwise now if they can expect “free” money from the Government for doing so?).

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Let the Information be Free!

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” – Albert Camus

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

I have an update to my article from a few weeks back on Freedom of Information. In that article I made the case that our FOI laws are woefully insufficient. An FOI request allows you to bring Government information into the public domain simply by you asking for it. To look at it another way, all information that could be released by an FOI request is already potentially in the public domain but for the lack of the appropriate question being asked. This is a major limit in itself as to get at that information:- First we need to be able to ask that appropriate question.

However my wife Ellen and I discovered that what we mean by “public domain” and what the Scottish Government means by it may be two very different things. It appeared to us that while the Government regularly publishes the replies to FOI requests to its online archive, it does not appear to publish every reply there though they consider a private reply directly to the requester to be equivalent to posting the information into the public domain. Communication with the Information Commissioner revealed that there was no legal obligation for the Government to post replies to a public archive at all, merely that it was considered “best practice”. As we had personal experience of an FOI request not being posted to that archive and it got us wondering how often this happened. By examining the unique serial codes of the FOI requests that were published and making the assumption that they were assigned to requests sequentially as they arrived, I estimated that around 30% of replies made it to the public archive. But I thought I could do better than that so I decided to FOI some information about FOIs.

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What Kind of Scene Are We Setting?

“It is politically easier to rev up GDP and hope some of it trickles down to the poor than it is to distribute existing income more fairly.” – Jason Hickel

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

Last week the Scottish Government, represented by Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie, launched the first paper in a series of papers framing their view of the next stage of the Scottish Independence campaign. This first paper – Independence in the Modern World. Wealthier, Happier, Fairer: Why Not Scotland? – is described as a “scene setter” and a description of the world as it is now rather than what it could be under independence. As such, it probably raised more questions from than delivered answers to the journalists at the press conference. It does nothing to answer or advance arguments around currency, borders or pensions or any of the other topics that I and other independence activists have been immersed in for a decade now but it wasn’t ever supposed to. All this paper has done is take several economic metrics such as GDP and inequality and compared the UK to several other countries in Europe. We’ve seen this approach before:– this paper is essentially an abbreviated and updated version of the first third of the 2018 report by Andrew Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission and the ideology that informed that report is woven throughout this new one.

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No Freedom Without Information

“There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy.” – Joseph Pulitzer

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

(Since the original publication of this post, Ellen joined me on the Common Weal Policy Podcast to discuss the issues raised in more detail. You can listen to that show here.)

Common Weal has been at the forefront of Scottish democratic and governance reform since our inception – it’s one of the things that attracted me personally into the orbit of the organisation. One of our earliest campaign success stories was the creation of the Scottish lobbying register which, despite its many and still critical flaws, at least gives us some insight into who is talking to the Scottish Government and about what. Another area where we’ve been gaining ground is our ongoing campaign for better Scottish statistics – the Scottish Government has still not picked up our call for a dedicated Scottish Statistics Agency to fill gaps in data provision despite overwhelming support from SNP members three years ago.

Where these two areas intersect is how we, as citizens, gain access to data and information produced by the government which might be difficult to find or not published at all. You have a right called Freedom of Information which allows you to ask public bodies (including the government itself) about the information it holds on various topics. It can be a question such as how much has been spent on a project? Or how many times a Minister has met a specific person? Or anything else that isn’t routinely published or that the Government has good reason to not publish (perhaps due to national security concerns). There are, of course, caveats such as declining to publish information that would be difficult or expensive to obtain (perhaps the question was too broad or requires someone to trawl through a half-forgotten archive of paper records). All of this legislation is important. If we don’t know who is talking to government, what government is telling itself or what they’re not telling us then we cannot hold them to account for their actions. I’d go as far to say that an opaque government is inherently corrupt or, at least, cannot adequately demonstrate that it is not.

However, there are flaws in the current FOI legislation as well and we have been campaigning on reform to the legislation as well. In 2019 I took part in a very memorable meeting at the Scottish Parliament where we discussed various aspects of possible reform.

 These reforms include ending “corporate confidentiality” in public-private contracts after the contracts have been signed (so we know precisely how much we’re spending and on what – especially on large infrastructure projects), mandating that private companies in receipt of public money should be covered by FOI when they spend it (so that government can’t hide behind a wall of privatisation), and – most serious of all – that government should end its unlawful practice of treating FOI requests from some people differently from others (such as allowing Ministers to “review”, delay or block FOI requests submitted by journalists). One of our key recommendations was to address a fundamental flaw in the FOI process itself which is that in order to get information into the public domain, you first need to be able to ask a question about it.

To ask the question “For the minutes of the meeting between the Minister for Energy and Coal Billionaire Joe McSmoke in August 2019?”, you first need to have some kind of suspicion that such a meeting even took place and that there’s a possibility that it was minuted and that those minutes were recorded in a way that is publishable. Instead, we’ve called for public bodies to adopt what we’ve termed to be a “Glass Wall” approach whereby any information that would normally be disclosed by a properly submitted FOI should be proactively published in a browsable archive (we may still need to submit something similar to an FOI to the curator of said archive to be able find said information but the point is that you wouldn’t need to).

I’m glad to say that many of these suggestions were accepted by the Committee and, eventually, by the Government itself. It brought about an investigation by the Information Commissioner to ensure that the recommendations were being carried out (especially the ending of unlawful interference of FOI by ministers) and which published last week.

It was this report that led me to discovering another fundamental flaw in the FOI process that surprised me and also throws the entire system into serious doubt as to its ability to ensure transparent government.

Folk in Indy circles will no doubt be aware of the ongoing story about the UK Government’s “secret polling” into public attitudes on the Union. This polling was done in around 2018 (so is almost certainly out of date now) but was never publicly published. A court case recently concluded with an instruction to publish the data and the latest in this story is that the UK Government is still refusing to publish and may need to be challenged again.

However, there is a twist to this story. When this all kicked off last year my wife Ellen asked the obvious but unasked question – If the UK Government isn’t publishing its polling on attitudes towards independence, why couldn’t the Scottish Government publish its own internal polling on the topic? Even better, once both were published, we could compare and contrast the results of the various questions asked. Not being able to find that polling in any of the public databases, Ellen submitted an FOI for its release and, to both of our surprise, we were told that the reason that this data hadn’t be published before and couldn’t be published now was because the Scottish Government hadn’t conducted any public polling on attitudes in the time between January 2018 and July 2021 when the request was submitted.

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This could and should have been a major story last year and Ellen planned to send it around journalistic circles just as soon as a linkable version appeared on the Scottish Government FOI database.  Several days passed without it doing so. Then weeks. Then a couple of months. To this day, if you search for her FOI request it still returns no result.

The Information Commissioner’s report last week brought the topic back to the front of our mind and Ellen contacted the Commissioner to try to find out if there was a reason that this FOI would not be published. The prompt reply frankly shocked us. A private reply to an FOI is considered by the Scottish Government to be a fulfilment of FOI legislation and puts the information into the “public domain” but there is no obligation in the legislation for the reply to be entered into a public database. Doing so is merely considered “best practice”.

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Consider this for a moment. There is an obligation on the Scottish Government to respond to FOI requests but so long as they give the information to the person who asked the question, there is no obligation on them to let anyone else know about it. But, as it is now a public document, “leaking” it as I have done above isn’t even leaking – it’s just sharing a public document.

But this leads us to another question – how many FOI requests have been answered by private email and not shared more widely? I don’t think it’s a question anyone but the Scottish Government  can answer with certainty but there may be a way of taking at least a stab at it. Whenever you submit an FOI request, you are given a unique reference number. That number – as per Ellen’s FOI above – takes the form of the year of submission and then a string of numbers. That string of numbers appears to be not random but at least somewhat sequential. The earliest FOI in the database is FoI/16/00690 published on October 23rd 2017 and the most recent as of the time of writing – published on May 24th 2022 – is FOI/202200296591. As of the time of writing there are 8879 FOI replies in the database. I don’t know if the sequence of ID numbers includes documents other than FOIs (is document 202200296592 some other letter to or from a civil servant perhaps?) but I can’t imagine why it would. It may be that some of these FOIs have been sent to other public bodies (such as Local Authorities) and published in their own databases but – as said above – we have a clear example of at least one FOI to the Scottish Government that has not been published. Assuming each of these numbers does refer solely to a unique FOI request and its reply and the reference number is as sequential as it appears to be then that may suggest that in the worst case, less than 30% of FOI requests to the Scottish Government have been published in a public manner beyond a direct reply to the person who submitted the request. I dearly hope there’s an explanation out there that means that things aren’t as bad as that. If anyone has one, please do let me know.

I’d be really interested to hear your experiences with this. If you have submitted an FOI request and found that your reply is not on the database then let us know. I’m not sure what we can do from there. We could probably do more to train up volunteers to submit FOIs and have them share their replies with us but how can we do more than that? Does Common Weal have to publish these FOIs ourselves? Do we have to partner with some journalists to create a “Shadow Repository” of all of the FOIs the Government didn’t want you to see? Will just the threat of doing so force an explanation from the Government? Whether by actual legislation or, as a distant second, firm departmental commitments to actually follow “best practice” the Scottish Government should and must publish ALL FOI requests that it responds to. Even the “frivolous” ones. Even the “vexatious” ones. Even the “inconvenient” ones from journalists and especially even the ones that reveal that the Scottish Government hasn’t been doing work that it should have been doing as it prepares to fight another independence campaign. For their part, the Information Commissioner’s office confirmed to us that it is not within their remit to force FOI replies to be published again, because it is not a statutory requirement.

As I said at the top of this piece, I don’t think we can have a functioning democracy without transparency and accountability. Corruption is inevitable if power remains in the dark and behind closed doors. If only a select few have access to information, the same results. From a very practical standpoint, it’s also a complete waste of resources to have to blindly keep asking the same FOI questions because you didn’t know that someone else asked for the same information some time before you. In a very real sense there can be no freedom without freedom of information. The Scottish Government can and must ensure that all of us can see what it is doing at all times. If they don’t, we have to ask the final obvious, unasked question. What, precisely, are they hiding from us?

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A Financial Flatspin

“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” – Warren Buffett

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

An extremely disturbing report was published this week looking into life expectancy in Scotland and the UK. It found that the consistent gains in life expectancy that we have experienced for much of the 20th century and into the first decade of the 21st has stalled and has even started to decline for some groups – especially the poorest and most deprived. This stall was abrupt and started in 2012 and has had the effect of knocking around 16 months of life off of the average Scot compared to pre-2012 trends.

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(Image Source: GCPH)

 This was not due to a “natural limit” of life expectancy being reached (though such a limit does almost certainly exist) nor have neighbouring countries experienced this stall to anywhere the same degree. The stall is not due to Covid, nor any other endemic illness. Drug-related deaths in Scotland are rising and this is having a measurable impact on average life expectancy but life expectancy has also stalled for non-drug users so this cannot explain everything either. Nor is it due to obesity or even due to climate change (though the former had more of an impact than the latter). All of these factors and more could be isolated, accounted for and controlled for in the study. Once this was done, there remained still an additional adverse impact on our life expectancy.

The conclusion of the report is that there is one stark cause above all of the other factors that has resulted in our lives being, on average, shorter than they otherwise would have been. In 2010 the UK Government began a massive socio-economic experiment called Austerity. This, the report finds, has been the primary cause above all others for the harm done to our health and wellbeing. It has sucked vital resources out of public services and starved households of the resources required to replace them. Poverty and deprivation – deliberately applied by political choice – has killed people earlier than they otherwise would have died.

It is in this context that we must view the other major reports published this week – the Scottish Government’s Resource Spending Review and Capital Spending Review. These financial reviews lay out the plans for devolved government spending over the next four or five years up till the end of this Parliament. The choices being made are grim.

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Why I’m Voting Against The SNP/Green Deal

‘We must take advantage of the “tide of fortune”’.
‘I know about tides, sir. They leave little fish gaspin’.’ – Terry Pratchett


Edit 28/08/21 – The Scottish Green members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the deal and it was subsequently also voted through overwhelmingly by Council. The SNP members similarly voted overwhelmingly in favour in their consultative ballot. The deal shall now go ahead as written.


Tomorrow is going to be one of those turning point days in Scottish politics. The SNP and Greens have agreed to a cooperation deal that would see the closest relationship between the two parties in Holyrood, the closest that Greens anywhere in the UK have got to being in Government and the closest arrangement between any two parties in Scottish politics since the Labour/Lib Dem coalitions that ran the country between 1999 and 2007.

Tomorrow, the Green membership will decide whether or not to endorse that deal in a binding vote at an EGM.

In this blog, I’m going to lay out why I plan to vote against that endorsement.

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Scottish Elections 2021:- The Results

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” – Abraham Lincoln

A strange election in strange times has, after more than the usual delay, returned a result that seems almost strangely familiar. Prior to the 2016 election, the “received wisdom” was that the majority SNP government was going to come back to power with that majority and thus usher in five years of “boring government” under a “one party state”. Instead, we got a minority government and everything that followed from that. This time round, the challenge to “restore” that majority government was rejected and we again find ourselves with a Parliament that looks really quite similar to the one in 2016. Many of the names have changed, many of the seats have not. The SNP have fallen one seat short of a majority, the Tories remain the “2nd party” by equalling their previous tally, the Greens have increased their ranks and Labour and the Lib Dems have reduced. Despite enthusiastic campaigning by their activist, no new parties have entered Parliament and none have left either (though the Lib Dems have dropped below the “major party” threshold which may have significant implications for them). From a pure democratic stance, at 63% the turnout was the highest of the devolution era – despite or in spite of fears that the pandemic would suppress it. More voters is always a good thing. As is diversity in the Parliament with record numbers of women, people of colour and other underrepresented groups in the House.

A full breakdown of the results in each constituency and region can be found here.

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(Source here)

There will be discussion over the coming days about the makeup of Government and whether the SNP continue to run as a minority or whether they form a formal coalition – most likely with the Greens. For my part, with a track record of two minority governments I think that a coalition is unlikely and my preference would be against one anyway for reasons I’ll detail below but primarily because of my feeling laid out on Thursday that a Government that can rely on whipped loyalty will make less good decisions than one that has to justify itself to Parliament.

The call for a second independence referendum must now intensify. There is a Parliamentary majority capable of passing a referendum bill and instructing the Government to proceed with its manifesto promise. Indeed, between the SNP and the Greens there is now as many pro-independence MSPs in Parliament now as there were in 2011 when the first indyref was initiated. Mandates are sure to be traded – some more, some less valid – and we’re still lacking an effective pressure campaign to keep the tactical and strategic advantage on our side, but I think it is likely now that the only person who can actively prevent an independence referendum within the next Scottish Parliament is now Nicola Sturgeon. The campaign is there for her to take and run with.

For more detailed analysis of each of the parties and the overall political landscape, keep reading below the fold.

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To Those We Are About To Elect

“Leadership is about vision and responsibility, not power.” – Seth Berkley

This has been an unusual election, put upon us by unusual times. The pressures of the global Covid pandemic here in Scotland have greatly limited electoral campaigning (though I do believe there’s a bright future ahead for digital and semi-digital hustings and other meetings) and the count itself has been extended to allow for the safety of the staff involved. The grand tradition of watching over-tired politicians and pundits trying to say nothing for as long as possible between 10pm and the first results coming in was pretty much absent in Scotland this year. Normally, around this time, I’d be reporting on the results and my analysis of them but as things stand we’re not expecting the first Constituency results in Scotland until this evening and as the Regional results can only be tallied once all of the Constituency results are in, we’re not expecting the final results until Saturday night or maybe even Sunday morning.

Instead of that analysis (which shall come when we have the results) I want to write an open letter to all of the politicians who will take up seats in the upcoming Parliament.

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How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the 2021 Scottish Election

Disclosure and Disclaimer: Although I am politically active and an active member of the Scottish Green Party, this post is intended to be objective and politically neutral. This is a guide on how to vote, not a blog trying to convince you to vote for or against any particular person or party.

Introduction

On May 6th, Scotland will once again go to the polls to elect a new Parliament. This will be the sixth election since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the second election since I started writing this blog and these “How to Vote” guides. You can read my previous guides to elections in the UK behind these links which cover the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Elections, the 2017 UK General Elections, the 2017 Scottish Local Authority Elections, the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections, and the 2019 UK General Elections.

This will also be the second Scottish Parliamentary election that will include voters who were born after the re-establishment of Parliament and possibly the first to include election candidates who were born after the start of the devolution era.

It is also the first Scottish Election to involve voters from Scotland’s newly expanded electoral franchise. Whilst 16 year olds were enabled to vote in elections follow the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish Electoral Franchise Act returned voting rights to EU/EEA citizens who had them stripped from them as part of Brexit but also extended voting rights to non-EU citizens. Anyone in Scotland who is aged 16 or over on May 6th and has right to permanently reside in Scotland. Limited voting rights have also been extended to prisoners who can vote if they are serving a sentence of less than one year (though the recent presumption against prison sentences of less than one year means that this affects very few prisoners – perhaps only around 500 individuals). As a result, Scotland has the second most expansive electoral franchise in the UK (Wales also allows all permanent residents aged 16+ to vote but has extended prisoner voting to those serving less than four years) and, prisoner voting aside, one of the most expansive franchises of all European democracies.

The result of this is that this election will include the voice of tens of thousands of people who have, until now, been unable to vote in the country they pay their taxes and many call “home”. As noted in my disclaimer at the top of this article, I am a politically active person but this blog isn’t about any of that. I want to walk first-time voters through the voting system for this election. Whomever you actually vote for, this is how to do it.

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Shifting Sands

“It is fear that reinforces the walls we build, people are afraid to be swayed from their convictions, afraid to question their moral instincts and expose themselves to ideas that may challenge the fabric of their entire existence, but what are we if we are not seeking to better ourselves?” ― Aysha Taryam

We are entering a new phase of the independence campaign. One in which “mandates” are traded against each other – propping each other up more than they are trying to topple the other.

One in which the bounds of the constitution must be challenged rather than worked within.

One in which the “status quo” is no longer the answer to “change” nor is it even on offer.

One in which the nature of the debate becomes ever more existential rather than aspirational.

The idea of a 2020 independence referendum is all but dead with even the First Minster now looking more towards a post-2021 election victory to bolster her own mandate even where the UK Government has already committed to ignoring it.

This isn’t going to be a fight won by legal battles (though a clarification on the UK’s constitution would be welcome) nor by wagging votes at each other.

Meanwhile, Scottish politics itself is suffering as the two major cleaves running through it (Yes vs No and Remain vs Leave) have dealt a crippling blow to the designed “collegiate” atmosphere that the Scottish Parliament was supposed to be founded upon.

Some might hope that a more gradualist approach to independence will get us there, even if it really does take waiting a lifetime. But between the impending climate emergency and the sheer unlikelihood of the other parties changing their minds on their own, I don’t think this is a wise approach.

Common Weal recently published a strategy document aimed at using the sheer power of the Yes Movement as well as the substantial bloc of SNP MPs in Westminster to start to apply pressure on the UK Government – to first mock and embarrass them then to ramp up and slowly bring their ability to govern Scotland to a halt until and unless they accept the inevitability of Scottish independence.

How about we add another tool to that box and start to bring pressure on the Unionist parties themselves? Could we even do this from within? Could we give them the nudge that we need?

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