Now IS The Time

PM Theresa May has called for a UK General Election to be held on June 8th. Because the UK is completely united behind her vision of Brexit and now is not the time for divisive politics..or something.

This election does have to get over the stumbling block of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act which requires a 2/3rds majority in the Commons to overrule but Labour have already announced their support for that move. It must be hard for them. If they do it, they’ll get a drubbing. If they don’t, they’ll be crucified in the press.
Whilst I don’t think the Tories will find the prospect of kicking Labour whilst they are down to be an unwelcome one, I still don’t think that this is the primary motivation for this call. There’s little the Tories can’t do with a majority of a dozen or so that they could do with a majority of 50+.

I don’t think this is about Labour. This is a Brexit call. May will be wanting to legitimise the hardest-of-Brexits she’s angling for but which wasn’t in the last manifesto. She’ll also be wanting to harden the party behind that vision. I’d be watching the selection process very carefully to see how many of those back-bencher Remainer Tories get quietly (or not so quietly) purged from the ranks or at least get made to submit to the party will.

With regard to Scotland, this is a gamble which only makes sense if May isn’t considering Scotland at all. All it is going to take is the pro-independence parties (especially the one which holds all of the pro-indy seats at the moment) to put up their 2015 manifesto as read and state that this General Election is about the choice between the hardest of Tory Brexits and Independence. Once they return a majority (I wonder how David Mundell is feeling right now) then no-one can deny that mandate for a referendum without ridicule.

SNP support probably isn’t as strong as it was in the wake of the Surge inflated 2015 election but FPTP will still work in its favour. The chances of returning a majority of seats by themselves is still substantial.

And then there’s Northern Ireland which is still without an Assembly. Yes, in normal times the General Election dynamics are somewhat different but between the prospect of Brexit and Direct Rule these are far from normal times. I won’t even pretend to try to predict what will happen there.

So what’s the “best case” scenario for May? A quelled party, a silenced opposition and “the regions” don’t make too much of a racket as they follow the UK into the hardest of Tory Brexits and all the cuts, Austerity and pain that will bring. Tory rule will dominate for a decade or more.

Her “worst” case? She loses her majority and the mandate for Brexit. Government crumbles, resignations happen and all the while Article 50 – which was triggered by a “united” Britain less than a month ago keeps on ticking down towards May 2019…

Interesting times.

tcg-logo-7

 

The Drake Equation

When was the moment you became afraid, genuinely afraid, for the outcome of Brexit?

Maybe it happened a while ago. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet. I hit that point today.

Gib

We’re less than a week into the Brexit process and the UK has already told the EU that there may be security concerns…nudge nudge…if it doesn’t get what it wants (although that was just a misunderstanding, don’t you know?).

Then the Government was utterly blindsided by Spain gaining a veto over any deal which involves Gibraltar – despite those in the actual know talking about it for literally months prior to the vote.

In response, senior politicians in the UK – a NATO member – are threatening another NATO member with the prospect of actual war.

And the negotiations haven’t even started yet.

As part of my EU Referendum series, back right before the Brexit vote I stated that I didn’t believe the hype that a Leave vote would be the utter ruination of everything.

I even felt that J. J. Patrick’s three part series on the road to a Dystopian Brexit was, if plausible, at least well out on the edge of the probable. At best a warning rather than a prediction.

What I hadn’t, obviously, fully appreciated was the utter incompetence of the UK Government’s Brexit team. I’m not just talking about the bumbling excuse for a clown that is Boris Johnson – such a Titanic Success he’s been – but also David Davis, who nine months after the vote and just days before the triggering of Article 50 couldn’t answer even basic questions about the “plan”.

But even all that is just incompetence. Even that would just lead to the UK being out-negotiated on every major issue by the EU until it either accepts the deal offered or stomps off into the sunset without one.

And this latter option is what looks increasingly likely. It really does look like the “plan” is to walk out of talks and to find some way of blaming the EU for it happening.

But back to that headline. The sight of the UK threatening another European nation with war as a negotiating tactic – for that is what it is, make no mistake there – is deeply disturbing. At heart, I’m a pacifist. War should never be considered an “option” in the diplomatic process, not even the final option. It should be considered to be the consequence of the failure of the last option. Even the threat of a war is one which can rapidly spiral out of control, if one ever presumed for a moment that it could have been controlled.

What’s the strategy here anyway? By launching an attack on another NATO member, the UK would pull in other NATO members, most of them also European. Does the UK want to pull the USA into this to pick an ally? Or hang one side (or both) out to dry?

Is the UK relying on Donald Trump being a rational and impartial mediator in all of this?

As has been noted elsewhere, this shouldn’t even have been any kind of issue at all. Most of the deals of any competence within the EU divorce settlement, including the Gibraltar/Spain border issue, need to be ratified by the entire EU27, including Spain, anyway. At this point it looks as though the inclusion of the explicit Spanish veto was added to the EU’s strategy document for one (or both) of two purposes. a) As a sweetener to keep Spain “on-side” and acting within the whole of the EU27 “as one” and/or b) to test the UK’s plan to see what they’d do and to test the robustness of its strategy ahead of the negotiations.

The UK didn’t just blink in the face of this test. It has shut its eyes, screamed loudly and ran right off the cliff. The EU now knows that the UK has buttons which can be pressed. Westminster needs to ramp down the rhetoric immediately and get a serious grip of itself before it reaches the negotiation table proper if it wants to be taken seriously. From the lack of planning, through the deliberate exclusion of the devolved nations (and Gibraltar) from any kind of involvement in negotiations out to frankly stupid statements like this the UK has done a great deal of harm to its own reputation and the chances of making Brexit bearable, never mind making it a “success”.

And we’re less than a week into the Brexit process. Two years to go.

tcg-logo-7

Beyond The Headlines

“[I]f there is to be meaningful debate on this issue then the SNP have a lot of work to do to produce best possible data. The last thing they should do is trust that from London.” – Richard Murphy

Tax expert Richard Murphy, who is currently most notable for exposing the UK’s massive £120 billion per year tax gap, has written an article warning of relying on UK economic data to make the case against Scottish independence.

Murphy

Before he gets attacked too badly by hacks telling him that the Scottish economic data is produced by Scottish civil servants (Edit: I may already be too late on that) I thought I’d write a parallel piece pointing out what those civil servants have told me about the limits of some of their stats.

The first thing to remember in all of this is that the UK is not a federation or a confederation, it considers itself to be a unitary state of which Scotland is just one region of twelve (plus the “extra-regio” offshore regions). Therefore there is currently no real obligation to even gather the distinct statistics for Scotland and it really only has become important because of the independence campaign.

Tax Revenue

As I’ve pointed out in my paper Beyond GERS, the issue of apportioning tax revenue is fraught with subtle difficulty. GERS itself has updated its methodologies multiple times over the years (particularly since the SNP took the government in 2007. The GERS of today is no longer very closely related to the GERS created by Ian Lang to discredit Scotland in the early ’90’s). There are still differences in the results presented straight by HMRC and the data eventually “Scottishised” [To use the stats folk’s term] and presented in GERS.

Onshore corporation tax is a good example of this. Where an overall UK stat may simply count the location of the HQ of a company for the purposes of assigning corporation tax and this may make sense from a unitary state perspective (albeit this is becoming less true as globalisation increases the ability for multi-national companies to move resources across borders).

For many companies though, the profits one which corporation tax are paid are not generated at the HQ. This is obvious in the case of, for example, a large retail chain which has stores across the country. To correct for this, HMRC and GERS both use different methodologies to apportion the tax more evenly. Various measures (and the weighting applied to those measures) such as estimating volume of sales, number of employees, amount of capital spent in the region and overall population are all used in different ways to reach slightly different estimates. As a result, HMRC estimates that in 2015-16 Scotland produced 7.1% of the UK’s corporation tax compared to 7.3%% estimated by GERS – a gap of  about £100 million.

One can also see possible limits of these methodologies especially if taken individually. For example if one looks at employees then one could probably consider a company (and, it should be stressed that this is a completely hypothetical company) which employs a dozen people in Scotland to make, say, a high value, highly exportable product with a geographic link (call it a similarly hypothetical product like “Scotch blisky”) and then employs a couple of hundred people in London to market it. It may be very difficult to properly apportion the “value” of that product and its profits based on employees alone. It’s possible, after all, to find a market without marketing but a bit harder to drink an advertising campaign.

VAT is another issue where these figures can differ for similar reasons. The UK doesn’t demand point of sale ID to determine the location of VAT spend (If you nip down the road to Carlisle for your shopping, then that results in VAT paid in England but Tesco neither knows nor cares where you came from to get there). Again, various methodologies are used to try to estimate the proportions paid and the estimates are slowly aligning (HMRC claims Scotland paid 8.4% of the UK’s VAT compared to GERS’ 8.6% – a gap of £110 million). There is also a further complication wherein the results between HMRC and GERS are simply presented in a different manner (HMRC measures the cash receipts, GERS measures the accruals)

A third prominent example is Income Tax, and is going to become pertinent now as IT is largely devolved to Scotland and all Scottish residents are to be assigned a distinct Scottish tax code and especially now that the income tax bands in Scotland will soon start to diverge from the UK bands. However, HMRC has been recently criticised for a series of administration issues which is making it difficult to roll out this tax code. As with the difficulties in rolling out devolved welfare, this won’t be nearly so much of an issue once Scotland is independent but highlights the difficulty in trying to run a devolved situation from a centralised unitary setup. This said, both HMRC and GERS arrive at a proportion of about 7.2% of the UK’s income tax coming from Scotland although this may change as the new systems are launched (even if tax rates are kept the same).

It is not possible to say whether the HMRC or GERS estimate is “better” or “worse” than the other. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has commented saying, especially of corporation tax:

“Neither of these estimates is clearly superior to the other, and both may be some way off. Profits are not necessarily generated in proportion to the number of employees, or their wages. Some employees may be more instrumental in generating profits than others; and profits also arise from capital assets – both physical (such as buildings and equipment) and intangible (such as intellectual property and brand value) – the location and contribution of which may differ from the location and wages of employees. Calculating how much of a company’s profits are attributable to economic activity in different locations is conceptually and practically difficult and is the source of many problems in international corporate taxation”

Balance of Trade

This is the big one that has attracted a lot of shouting in the past few months. Once again, the UK’s status as a unitary state causes much of the furore over the published numbers to be based on false premises and over-massaged numbers. The UK’s balance of trade figures are published here and probably do do a decent job of estimating the UK’s position in the world. What it doesn’t do is show the internal movements of trade within the UK. As a unitary state it simply doesn’t matter to the external balance of trade whether or not Yorkshire is a net exporter to Sussex. The UK does produce figures which try to estimate the trade balance between the regions  with the rest of the world but it only covers goods, not services (hence excludes nearly half of the UK’s total trade) and it does not cover internal trade. For that internal trade, we turn to ESS – Export Statistics Scotland – which surveys exporting companies in Scotland and asks them where they send their goods and services (contrary to a semi-popular belief, these statistics don’t care how the goods reach their destination so it doesn’t matter if they physically leave the UK via an “English port“). There are some limits, again, to this methodology.

First, not all companies know where their goods are going (see the example of Tesco again. If someone from Carlisle buys a crate of beer in Glasgow then goes home then that’s a Scottish export but Tesco wouldn’t be able to record it easily) so they won’t appear in the survey. Goods which are shipped to England then either re-packaged or used as a sub-component before being exported from England to somewhere else (or even back to Scotland) would be counted only as far as their export to England and there may be some cases where service “exports” are caused by, for example, someone in London buying insurance for their house in London from the London branch of a provider who just happens to have a brass plate in Edinburgh. The total proportion of these anomalies in the data is simply unknown at this point and unlikely to be knowable until after independence.

Beyond the Horizon

And this takes us to the most important point in this whole article.  Even if the methodologies above all align and all can capture the full economic picture of Scotland and everyone can agree on the figures produced and everyone agrees that they produce an accurate and complete picture of Scotland’s economy within the Union there is a fact which should be utterly indisputable (and certainly is within the team which put together these stats).

Independence. Changes. Everything.

None of these figures have any validity if you try to use them to project beyond the independence horizon. Corporation tax may change due to the redomiciling of businesses post-independence. Both those seeking to remain within the UK and those seeking to remain within the EU or EEA may shift operations. Trade exports may suddenly become a lot easier to assign (whether there’s a “hard border” or not) and that “extra-regio” oil which is often excluded from stats due to historical and supply chain accounting issues suddenly has to be accounted for. Those tax streams which are simply too embedded to discuss in any terms other than by a population share have to be audited. And all of this is before Scotland starts to make changes to the tax system to optimise it for the Scottish economy or to do things like close the tax gap.

As with everything in science and in economics, statistics are based on models, models are only ever as strong as their underlying assumptions and projections are only ever as strong as the person making the prediction’s understanding of the limits of those assumptions and the models.

IMF GDP Growth

(One day I’ll write an article about the “Porcupine Plots” which get created when inappropriate models are used year after year in spite of reality)

I don’t mind discussing the economy of Scotland within the Union. I don’t even mind speculating on the economy of an independent Scotland. But I sense that the next two years of campaigning will get very frustrating if pundits continue to stretch their own models past the point of credibility in a quest to push their political point. This, I should warn, goes for both sides. We need a more meaningful economic debate than we saw last time. Let’s get beyond the headlines to create one.

tcg-logo-7

QuEUing up for Membership

Don’t want to read 2600 words? Twitter version: None of the things people say will be hard are. Few are talking about things which will be.

SaltireEU2

Only in the madhouse world of UK politics that a government which is actually embarking on the process of taking Scotland out of the EU against its will while claiming that this would be a wonderful thing could somehow contrive to simultaneously try to sell us that line that an independent Scotland would be out of the EU against its will and that would be terrible.

Whilst this is going on, the same several year old phony war surrounding Scotland’s membership of the EU continues with a great many people still claiming that we would a) be forced to join the euro and b) Scotland would be punted to the back of the accession “queue” doomed to wait till all other potential members (including, possibly, Turkey) have joined before we’ll get a look in.

This week has seen the publication of a couple of commentators on Scotland’s precise position regarding our EU membership, independence and the interaction with Brexit which has sent every man and their dug howling at the moon and trying to spin themselves into position to get another shot in.

So lets take the opportunity here to take a slightly more sober, honest and open look at how things work in the EU and plot out a couple of likely (that is, actually possible) pathways from which Scotland goes from here, through Brexit and independence and to an independent Scotland within the EU.

Continue reading

You’ll Have Had Your Devolution?

The Supreme Court has rendered its judgement on Article 50 and Brexit. In an 8-3 ruling they have decided, as reasonably expected, that Parliament must vote on the triggering of Article 50 and the beginning of the Brexit process.

On the second point of the case, that the devolved Parliaments should also be consulted, the Court ruled 11-0 that:

SCJudge.jpeg

In essence saying that whilst Westminster could consult the devolved Parliaments and could even state that their formal recognition was required it doesn’t have to and the Supreme Court will not force it to do so. In practice, we all know that this means it won’t. Scotland’s will can be overruled at Westminster’s. Power devolved is power retained.

Wallonia will now have more power than Scotland to negotiate, influence and – eventually – veto or approve the Brexit deal. So much for that “most powerful devolved government in the world“.

The idea of a Federal UK is now dead. Westminster is sovereign. As a former UK Federalist, this is a painful and depressing idea to admit. I cannot see any possible pathway to reach that destination. Those still in favour of it may have to have some very hard thinking to do now. (Mind you, if Wallonia DOES end up writing up more of the Brexit deal than Scotland does, this may be a good argument in favour of EU Federalism. That’s possibly a discussion for the future)

This also means that the SNP’s “Scotland’s Place in Europe” paper has only one pathway forward now and that’s through amendments to the Article 50 trigger bill when it comes through (something they’ve already pledged to do). If Scotland will not have its say from its own Parliament then it will have a voice at Westminster. And if we’re told that we’re to have no influence there either…?

tcg-logo-7

The White Paper Project

“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” – Alasdair Gray

wpp-v1-cover

Today I get to announce the launch of a very long awaited project I and the rest of Common Weal have been working on for quite some time now. We announced back in September that we have been working on renewing the case for Scottish independence by publishing a successor to the Scottish Government’s “Scotland’s Future” document.

Version 1.0 of the Common Weal White Paper can be download here or by clicking the image above.

This is a leaner document than Scotland’s Future was. That document was as much a party political campaign device as it was a blueprint for independence. It not only sought to describe the powers which would come to Scotland independence but also sought to convince voters of the SNP’s own vision for independence. There was nothing inherently wrong with this latter task per se and other parties too sought to promote their own distinct visions as well – as they will all do so again throughout the next independence campaign but this is not the task of an independence White Paper. This paper shall, as far as possible, not seek to propose a list of policy ideas which an independent Scotland could do nor shall it attempt to convince you of the merits of those policies. It merely lays out the technical and structural requirements which must be in place for Scotland to become an independent country once we, the voters, decide that it should become so.

It is a “consolidated business plan for the establishment of a new nation state”.

To this end, the White Paper is split into several broad sections. Part 1, Process and Structures, covers the foundation of a National Commission – a cross party and cross administration body which will be tasked with designing and implementing the institutions and systems which need to be set up in the time between the independence referendum and the formal independence day. It is one thing to state, for instance, “There shall be a Scottish Central Bank”. It is quite another to decide how large it needs to be, where it needs to be based and who needs to be hired to run it. The National Commission shall also be given interim borrowing powers so that it is able to issue bonds, raise capital and fund the construction of the vital infrastructure Scotland would need to either move from rUK or build from fresh.

Part 2, Key Institutions of an Independent Scotland, covers all those things we kept being asked questions about during the last referendum. Would we have a constitution? A currency? What would we do about borders? Defence? All these and more. Of course it’s not yet possible to answer every question in this regard. Some of it will be up for negotiation with rUK, some of it will be dependent on the shape of the Brexit deal between the UK and the EU and Scotland’s relationship with both in the run up to independence but we’re making a stab at as much as we can and this is the section which will perhaps be most expanded upon as the Project is iterated in future versions.

Speaking of negotiations, Part 3 covers the prospective shape of some of these – chiefly the allocation of debt and assets and what rUK’s response to our leaving shall mean for our claim on them. Also covered to some degree is how Scotland will interact with various international and supranational organisations although it should be stated once again that no case shall be strongly made for Scotland’s joining or refusal to join any of these organisations. That shall be left to the party or parties which seek to form the first independent Scottish parliament.

Finally, Part 4 outlines the position of Scotland as far as finance and borrowing goes as well as outlining as best we can the default fiscal budget for year one of independence. It is, of course, almost impossible to place any kind of actual certainty or promise on such a budget as it is based on several key assumptions such as the desire to keep both public spending and the various tax revenue streams broadly similar to their position at present. If a party decided to scrap the entire tax system and replace it with one of their own devising then it would have to be up to them to explain how that worked and project the revenue to be gained from it and how it would be spent. Other assumptions include Scotland spending the money assigned to it in GERS for various “UK projects” on projects of similar value and in similar accounting lines (so that, to pick an arbitrary example, our “share” of UK economic development funding spent outside Scotland but from which Scotland “benefits” would instead be spent on economic development within Scotland). Again, whether or not this happens will be a case for the individual parties to make and will depend entirely on accurately and precisely how the current fiscal projections for a devolved Scotland within the UK map onto the fiscal situation of an independent Scotland.

Once again, this is not the completion of the White Paper. This is the beginning. You will see that there are several sections which need to be expanded and built upon and items like costs and figures will be updated as time goes on (the default budget, for instance, is based on 2015-16 figures but – as we’ve probably noticed by now – Scotland didn’t become independent in 2015-16 so these precise figures will be revised as and when they should be). Some areas require the attention of people with specific experience and expertise in them to be able to complete so we are openly calling for those experts who are able and willing to contribute. Please contact us if you want to be involved. Let’s work to build the early days of our better nation.

TCG Logo 7.png

Beyond GERS

Today has seen the publication of my latest contribution to Common Weal’s White Paper Project. Click here to take you to the launch page or on the image below to take your directly to the paper. Further coverage can be found here and here in The National.

Beyond GERS cover.png

Preface

GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) 2015/16 reported Scotland’s fiscal deficit to be in the region of £14 billion per year, portraying Scotland as the country experiencing some of the most challenging financial circumstances in Europe.

However, this study must be viewed firmly in the light of Scotland being a member nation of the United Kingdom and, as such, any attempt to use them to project the finances of an independent Scotland must be treated with caution and qualification.

The very act of independence will result in significant redistributions and reallocations of government resources which will likely result in economic benefits accruing to Scotland. Additionally, decisions on how to establish and govern new Scottish state institutions will also improve Scotland’s budget at the point of set-up, further strengthening the fiscal position vis-à-vis that presented in GERS and that of the rest of the United Kingdom.

Key Points

• The act of independence brings with it many structural changes which will significantly benefit Scotland’s fiscal position to the effect of several billion pounds equivalent per year.

• By shifting the focus of defence from one of outward projection and nuclear deterrent to one more in line with modern European nations, savings of approximately £1.1 billion per year can be realised. Even in the event of Scotland committing to NATO member defence spending targets of 2% of GDP, the increased spending within Scotland can be expected to have additional economic benefits resulting in tax revenue increases of around £300 million per year compared to the status quo.

• A reasonable case for the debt and asset negotiations due to independence will result in Scotland saving up to £1.7 billion per year in debt interest repayments.

• The legal requirement of the UK Government to provide the UK State Pension for all those who have met the criteria would likely have to be the subject of negotiation post-independence, but the expectation would be that this would lead to billion-pound savings for the Scottish Government in at least the first year.

• A substantial fraction of unidentifiable spending accounted to Scotland is, in all likelihood, spending to cover UK wide government functions which Scotland may or may not choose to replicate or reproduce in some form post independence. Whilst savings will be made by reason of lower running costs and wages in Scotland compared to London, the additional economic benefits of spending in Scotland instead of elsewhere in the UK could result in additional tax revenues of approximately £719 million per year.

• The opportunity for an independent Scotland to redesign the tax code from the ground up, eliminating built in inefficiencies, loopholes and exceptions will help reduce the “tax gap” by approximately one-third, increasing revenue by about £3.5 billion per year.

• Whilst the UK’s tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is around the OECD average, many countries neighbouring it successfully maintain higher rates of tax revenues which, if replicated in Key Points: Scotland, could further improve the financial situation by several billions per year.

• Even without increasing tax revenue as a percentage of GDP, an independent Scotland could be placed in a position of relative “deficit parity” with the current UK budget.


Regular readers will know now that Common Weal has been very hard at work looking at the issues surrounding the independence debate, especially those arguments which just simply didn’t convince a certain segment of voters. We were all hoping that ‘someone else’ would come along and do this right after the last referendum but, for various reasons, it hasn’t happened. So Common Weal has decided to just roll up our collective sleeves and do it.

We’ve already published a paper reopening the currency debate, debt and assets, a proposal for a National Investment Bank and others. We want to produce further papers on pensions, defence, customs and excise, a detailed paper on the role of the Central Bank of Scotland, and others. All working up to a paper not just showing the limitations of accounting exercises like GERS but doing away with it entirely and building a case for an independent Scottish budget built from the ground up to suit our needs, rather than just being a tweaked version of what the UK does.

We are incredibly under resourced for this work but we think it’s work worth doing.

If you do too, perhaps you’d like to consider a donation to Common Weal to help us on our way: www.allofusfirst.org/donate
tcg-logo6c