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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But It’s Reserved!

“When you have no real power, go public — really public. The public is where the real power is.” – Elizabeth Warren

The nature of Scotland’s devolved settlement is that the country is simultaneously less powerful than many would like but more powerful than many would give it credit. The reserved powers list in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act are quite clear and the Scottish Government can and has been taken to court when it has attempted to overreach its powers. However the areas of devolved powers are broad and cross-cutting enough that it is often possible to effect change in defiance of Westminster simply by looking for the cracks and loopholes within those reserved and devolved powers.

We have also seen the pandemic reveal that some powers (such as the power to close or restrict borders) which were previously assumed to be reserved have, in fact, been substantially devolved. Until the pandemic struck it would have been considered unthinkable that the Scottish Government could effectively order the closure of the Anglo-Scottish border – and yet, for a time, it was (that the closure wasn’t particularly well policed and enforced is another matter entirely).

Scotland pushed against reserved Westminster policy many times – mostly significantly by using powers over planning permission to effectively block nuclear power and onshore fracking in Scotland. A larger challenge looms in the form of offshore oil and gas, but I believe that the Scottish Government could go further that it current does in terms of opposing oil extraction around Scotland despite the powers to do so being largely reserved.

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(Source: Unsplash)

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2019-2020 Edition)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.” – Errol Morris

This article was previously published on Source under the headline “The UK is Pooling More than it Shares”.

You can also read my previous work on GERS on this blog behind the following links: 2013-142014-152015-162016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19.

In many ways, this year’s GERS report marks the end of an era. It’s not that the report itself is going to change drastically or that we’ll finally reach the point of independence where we can stop moaning about how independence is impossible/necessary and that our fiscal position is fundamentally strong/weak and improving/declining compared to the rest of the UK (delete as per the report’s figures and your personal political position). It’s more that the Covid-19 crisis has completely changed the way that a state’s finances work. This year’s GERS report does include the initial measures implemented in response to Covid but only the initial responses up until the end of March. The full impact of this unprecedented fiscal year shall not be felt until the GERS 2020-2021 report next year.

We’ve entered a new era in which almost everything in government will be judged either as “Before Covid” (BC) or “After Covid” (AC). The assumptions that governed our economy have changed. Spending plans have changed. Priorities have changed.

But until then, this final GERS report of the BC era largely just repeats the arguments already well rehearsed in previous years.

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The Road To Independence Part Two – Johnson’s Journey to Yes

“The wizards, once they understood the urgency of a problem and then had lunch, and argued about the pudding, could actually work quite fast. Their method of finding a solution, as far as the Patrician could see, was by way of creative hubbub.  If the question was, ‘What is the best spell for turning a book of poetry into a frog?’, then the one thing they would not do was look in any book with a title like Major Amphibian Spells in a Literary Environment: A Comparison.” – Terry Pratchett, The Last Hero

Introduction

In Part One of this series, I laid out the reasonable options that Scotland could pursue in order to demonstrate the democratic will for independence. There have been some murmurings of a potential “Plan B” to supersede the “Plan A” of a sanctioned referendum by Section 30 order so as to circumvent the current barrier of Boris Johnson simply saying “No” everything time we ask for one.

In that article, I referenced Pete Wishart who has expressed his objection to any “Plans B” and has since written his own blog post outlining some of the same challenges as I have identified – albeit without also challenging the limitations of the “Plan A” approach. I strongly encourage folk to read his article in conjunction with my own efforts and to start discussions in earnest about which option you prefer AND how you’d like to see the challenges addressed.

To greatly summarise my own Part One, I found that all of the reasonable options bar the “Plan A” of a sanctioned referendum cannot be blocked simply by dictat from Westminster BUT in addition to individual challenges unique to each of those Plans, they all suffered the common problem of not having an automatic mechanism of bringing the UK Government to the table to accept the results and begin to negotiate independence. On the other hand, “Plan A” – which DOES have that mechanism via something like the Edinburgh Agreement – suffers from the problem that Westminster can ensure that the vote itself doesn’t take place. The effect is the same in all cases. Until Scotland can put pressure on the UK Government to accept the Plan and the results, we are not going to become an independent country.

In this article, I’m going to draw again from Common Weal’s strategy paper Within Our Grasp to look at various ways that Scotland could ramp up the pressure on the UK Government until they agree to recognise our independence.

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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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It’s Time to Get Brexit Done

“A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.” – Thomas Paine

Last night was a long one. It was a long one for myself as I was on election analysis duty over at Broadcasting Scotland and didn’t get home till almost 7am.

It was a long one for Scotland and the UK as well. The balance of the last couple of years of hung parliaments and indecision has been struck. Boris Johnson has won the largest Tory majority since the Thatcher era.

It is time to Get Brexit Done.

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