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Friday 26 September 2014

How About What They Don't Say Or Promise?

I guess that like it or not, most of us pay some sort of attention to the manifesto promises made by the various mainstream political parties during the traditional conference season, even if it's only through the small number of carefully placed and often pre-leaked policy commitments that mysteriously find their way into the mainstream broadcast media, or onto the front pages of the country's best selling newspapers. Whether we like it or not, whether we're interested in politics or not, ultimately someone has to run the country on behalf of the citizenry and surely the purpose of the party conferences is for politician's of all stripes to publicly lay out their proposals to the British electorate, so we can best determine which group of people are best placed and most able to look after the economic, industrial, social and cultural interests of our country.
Over the course of the next few weeks all of the UK's major political parties, Labour, UKIP, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives will hold their individual party conferences, during which they will lay out their specific political visions for Britain in the coming years. Each in their turn will offer up a range of economic, industrial, social and cultural policies for our consideration, in an attempt to garner our electoral support on election day. It is worth remembering however that much of what is said, what is offered to the public, by the various political parties, will only ever represents the broadest of strokes in terms of specific policies; and it is what they don't say, don't promise, is probably just as important as what they do. 
This week we have been treated to daily reports from Labour's annual party conference in Manchester, the last one before next year's general election, during which Mr Miliband's party publicly laid out the policies and strategies that they intend to pursue, or that they would like to implement, should they be fortunate to be elected to office once again by the British people.
According to these reports the Labour Party's priorities for the next ten years will include; a) Giving all school leavers and young people an equal opportunity to either be offered an apprenticeship, or to go on to university. b) Tackling the country's cost-of-living crisis, by helping working families share in the wealth of the country, by ensuring that wages grow at the same rate as the economy. c) Restoring the dream of home ownership by increasing the rate of new house building to 200,000 per year by 2020 and doubling the numbers of first-time buyers gaining access to the property ladder. d) Tackling the issue of low wages, halving the numbers of workers on low pay, by increasing the rate of minimum pay to £8.00 per hour. e) Securing the future of the country and the economy by creating one million new high tech jobs, at the same time making Britain a world leader in "green" technologies. f) Saving the NHS, by creating a world class, 21st century healthcare service. 
In pursuit of these six central and highly populist policies, the Labour leadership also announced that: g) They see Britain's long-term future in a reformed EU. h) That they favour giving votes to 16 and 17 year olds i) That they would like to turn the House of Lords into a more representative Senate. j) That they want to devolve more powers to England, Wales & Northern Ireland, as well as to the regions and larger cities. k) They vow to create 36,000 more jobs in the NHS. l) They pledge to pay for all these policies by cracking down on tax avoidance, as well introducing a mansion tax and by targeting the profits of tobacco manufacturers. m) That Labour will create a "time to heal" fund worth £2.5 billion per year. n) That they vow to repeal the coalition's Health & Social Care Act. o) That Labour will build a new generation of Garden cities. p) That firms bidding for government contacts would be forced to offer apprenticeships in return for receiving government business.
Of course on the face of it, all of these policy proposals go down very well with the general public, especially those who would be more inclined to vote for Labour during a national election, as is clearly reflected in a recent Survation poll, which showed extremely high levels of support amongst both Labour and Liberal Democrat voters when these same policies were presented to them in a positive manner. After all, who wouldn't like to see the NHS gain an additional 36,000 frontline staff, especially if they're going to be paid for by owners of properties worth more than £2m, or by the big tobacco companies, by tax avoiders, by the big banks, or indeed by the greedy utility companies?
But before everyone gets carried away and imagines that the many and the fairly intrinsic problems with the NHS are somehow going to be fixed overnight through the provision of this much talked about £2.5bn and the resulting 36,000 extra staff, perhaps it's worth considering the few major wrinkles that exist within Labour's much vaunted NHS rescue plan.
First, it is worth pointing out that in actual percentage terms this extra £2.5bn of health spending is only about half of what the Thatcher government spent on the NHS in every single year of the "Iron Lady's premiership, so the suggestion that Labour's proposed extra spending on the health service is in any way notable, or exceptional is entirely false.
Second, it is worth recalling that the last Labour government actively pursued the idea of private investment in the NHS, both through the outsourcing of services to entirely "for profit" health companies; and through the imposition of the hugely expensive PFI contracts. So for the Labour Party's Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham and the rest of the Labour leadership to now try and disassociate themselves and their party from such blatant privatisation of the NHS is a wholly contemptible attempt to try and rewrite the history of healthcare in our country. 
Third, the coalition's Health & Social Care Bill, which the Labour Party proposes to repeal, has already been in place for the best part of five years; and during that time fundamental changes have been made and presumably numerous contracts have been signed that would undoubtedly cost the NHS millions, if not billions to cancel. It also appears to be the case that Labour are not content to simply restore the NHS back to where it was in 2010, but rather to reorganise the entire healthcare system yet again, so that the nation's health and social care budgets are inextricably linked to one another. By any stretch of the imagination, such changes would almost certainly involve massive administrative start-up costs being incurred by Health and Social Care departments throughout the country, which then begs the question, just where is all this extra money going to come from?
Fourth, in various media interviews given by an assortment of Labour shadow ministers during the recent party conference, there seemed to be a great deal of confusion as to where these additional government revenues were likely to be spent. Were they going to be spent on reducing the country's deficit, or on the NHS, or even on funding housing, apprenticeships, jobs, etc? Obviously the same money cannot be spent more than once, assuming of course that you can raise it at all. After all, one particular Labour spokesman thought the "Mansion Tax" might be levied on properties once they were sold, whilst another thought that an annual tax might be applied to each property on an ongoing basis, assuming of course that they could actually identify which "mansion" was worth £2m to begin with.
Finally, there's the question of what to do with those owners who are deemed to be asset rich, but cash poor, including those numerous people who have been fortunate enough to see their properties rise in value, but don't have the annual incomes to pay a regular tax on it. What would happen to them? Would they be exempt from the tax? Would a charge be put on their home, which would then be reclaimed once they had died and the property sold? Would they be forced to sell up and move to a smaller cheaper property, in order to pay the proposed "Mansion Tax"? Wouldn't homeowners in London and the South be disproportionately affected by such a proposed levy, through a geographical anomaly rather than any real fault of their own?
With regard to Labour's proposal for new work apprenticeships! Just how are small to medium sized companies bidding for government contracts supposed to afford the cost of establishing and running these new mandatory apprenticeships? Will they be excluded from tendering for government contracts entirely, thus ensuring that only larger, better funded companies are able to secure government work? Wouldn't current EU regulations forbid the creation of such national-only job schemes anyway, meaning that foreign youngsters and workers, skilled and unskilled would be equally entitled to apply for such apprenticeships; and how exactly would that then help our own under-skilled British youth to improve their employment prospects? Also, would any government money be spent on helping to create, run and fund these new job opportunities; and just where will this new money come from?
Although on the face of it Labour's promised minimum wage of £8 per hour sounds attractive, the reality is that this particular figure is only proposed to be achieved by 2020, even though a similar hourly rate would likely be arrived in the marketplace, with or without direct government intervention anyway. So in a sense the Labour Party is simply forecasting the likely hourly rate in 2020, rather than promising to proactively improve British workers lives. Two other things are also worth bearing in mind with regard to this issue. Firstly, some employers, if faced with increased wage costs, may simply choose to reduce the size of their  workforces in order to reduce their wage liabilities, thereby forcing a smaller number of people to work harder and longer. Secondly, it has already been suggested that some workers might well find that they're actually worse off by having increased wages, as they inadvertently find themselves not only losing welfare benefits, but also having to pay more income tax, as a direct result of the increase in their minimum wage.
On the subject of home ownership and the house building programme proposed by Labour, there are several key points to make. The first is, are the proposed 200,000 homes per year going to be built purely to meet the needs of the existing population, or does that figure also include the 200,000 plus foreign migrants who will undoubtedly arrive in Britain as a result of the Labour Party's open door migration policies? Just where exactly are these new houses and Garden Cities going to be built, without them having a catastrophic effect on our current green belt land? How precisely will a future Labour government force supermarkets and developers to surrender the land-banks that they currently have in their possession?
It's all very well issuing a "use it, or lose it" ultimatum to very large landowners, but how exactly would they be forced to "use" the land, or how would government force them to lose it; and how much will it cost the public purse to compensate them, in the event that they choose not to use their properties for building houses or supermarkets? Finally, if a future Labour administration were to actually build a million or so new homes, what effect will that have on existing property values? Will current house prices be maintained, or would they fall, thereby causing some homeowners to then be caught in a negative equity trap?
In addition, Mr Miliband's promise to create one million new "high tech" jobs, would indeed be a welcome one, even more so if he explained just where and how these new employment posts were going to be found and funded. There is a suggestion that many would be found within the "green" economy, which as most of us know, tends to have a direct impact on consumers, who have to carry the burden of paying for new technologies through their utility bills. Could it be the case that these one million new high tech, environmentally friendly, green jobs will ultimately be created and paid for by Britain's commercial and domestic users, either through their electricity, gas or water bills? After all, aren't we already having to fund the thousands of green and environmentally friendly wind turbines that litter our countryside and our coastline, at an exorbitant cost to each and every household? Will Mr Miliband and a future Labour government provide us with more of the same; and if so, how does he propose to keep fuel bills down, at the same time that he's creating a million "green", high tech jobs?
As voters, there are several things that we know and that we can rely on. The first is that we can generally be sure that our mainstream politicians will promise us the earth and deliver us as little as possible, often because their manifesto promises are generally nothing more than a wish list of the things they would like to do, given an ideal set of circumstances. We also know that the Labour Party has a less than enviable record when it comes to economic competence, so quite why anyone would choose to believe that they're anymore capable of meeting their proposed economic targets now, than they have been in the past should rightly occur to each and everyone of us.
Surely the vision that Mr Miliband and his party are offering us for the future, is more of the same old policies that they offered us before? More unfettered foreign immigration! Higher levels of indigenous unemployment! Higher costs of living through increased utility bills! Increasing loss of our greenbelt! Higher taxes on both tobacco and liquor! More government intrusion into our private lives! More EU involvement in the running of our country! The greater fragmentation of our country through regional devolution and the creation of city states! The NHS and other vital services being endlessly reorganised and restructured to best suit a regional, rather than a national, identity! More foreign multi-culture than English traditional culture!
Obviously, each one of us in our turn will have to carefully consider the public promises and pledges made by the various political parties during their annual conferences, before deciding which of them, if any, deserves our individual support in the forthcoming general election. In the case of the Labour Party however, there still remains a significant question mark over their ability to make good on their electoral promises, even assuming that sufficient people are prepared to overlook the mistakes and oversights that the last Labour administration committed whilst in office.
For me as an individual voter the decision to invade Iraq, the damage that their multicultural agenda has wrought on Britain and its people, as well as the catastrophic damage caused to our national economy, NHS, schools and our society generally, means that I could not in good faith trust Mr Miliband and his colleagues to have learned the lessons from their past. As the title of this blog post suggests, sometimes it's the things that our mainstream political parties don't promise, don't say, the questions that they don't answer, which are far more enlightening and informative than those that they do?  

Saturday 20 September 2014

Regional Devolution: Empowerment Or Exploitation?

I have to say it comes as little surprise that within days of the Better Together campaign having managed to convince a majority of Scots to vote "NO" to independence, slowly but surely, the political consensus arrived at between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in order to achieve that common goal is already starting to fall apart. But maybe that's what happens when you make policy up on the hoof, without any great thought being given to the possible long-term outcomes that result from making promises that are either impossible to keep, or that will almost certainly suffer from the effects of unintended consequences.
After all, it's pretty easy to promise people the earth, but not so easy to deliver that once such undertakings are considered in both the cold light of day and having fully taken into account everyone else's needs, opinions and demands. Consequently, it was pretty easy for a former Labour Prime Minister and Chancellor to promise the Scottish people the earth, if they stayed within the Union, but did anyone really imagine that the English, Welsh and Northern Ireland electorates wouldn't want, or demand exactly the same rights for themselves? It's all very well for a former Labour Prime Minister to make whatever promises he likes to a receptive home audience, but considering that elsewhere in the wider British Union he has no public mandate, no executive power and no personal moral authority, then who or what gives him the right to hand out new executive powers to Scotland, as if they were free party favours, or as if they were going out of fashion?
All of those things having been done, the words uttered, the promises issued however, it was perhaps inevitable that after the referendum victory the three main political parties, those who ostensibly stood behind such promises, would perhaps take stock of the resulting situation, to see just how much electoral advantage, if any, their own political party might derive from having promised so much power, to so few people. Just to clarify, it's worth remembering that although Scotland's geographical landmass might account for nearly a third of our United Kingdom, in people terms they represent around 10% of the total, whilst England, which was initially promised nothing at all by way of political change, accounts for approximately 80% of the UK's total population.
The three minor regions of Britain, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already have their own form of devolved governments, which are based in their home countries, as well as full representation within the overarching British political establishment based in Westminster. In Scotland's case some fifty-nine elected MP's have been returned to Westminster, eleven of which are Liberal Democrats and forty-one of which are Labour MP's representing their various Scottish constituencies. In overall terms these elected Scottish MP's represent slightly less than 10% of the total number of MP's sitting in the House of Commons, which generally concurs with the size of the Scottish population within the UK as a whole.
However, given that Scotland has its own devolved assembly and therefore has overall executive control over a number of competencies; and with many more having been promised as a result of the independence referendum, the pre-existing West Lothian Question, involving Scottish MP's having direct influence over English only matters, is due to become an increasingly vexed issue within the British parliamentary system. Whilst the likes of Douglas Alexander, the Labour MP and Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat MP can influence, direct and vote on often purely English policy matters in the House of Commons, the likes of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have absolutely no influence whatsoever over matters pertaining to devolved competencies within the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland assembles.
As is evident from the figures the main political beneficiaries from the West Lothian Question are the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, both of which have benefited from the toxicity of the Conservative Party, north of the border; and from the traditional support that they have managed to amass over time. Clearly, neither party is likely to willingly see their Scottish contingents removed or undermined within the House of Commons, as this would automatically reduce their party's overall political influence within Westminster as a whole; and yet that is exactly what needs to happen, in order to address the perplexing issue of the West Lothian Question. However, for the Labour Party specifically, the prospect of losing or surrendering the influence of forty-one of its elected Scottish MP's on English only matters in the Commons, would appear to be a sacrifice that the party are unwilling to make in order to make good on their shared promises and undertakings to the Scottish people. Within hours of the Better Together campaign having secured victory in the Scottish Independence referendum campaign, both Douglas Alexander and Danny Alexander had utterly refuted any suggestion that they might excuse themselves from any English only business within the House of Commons, at the same time accusing their Conservative opponents of simply playing "politics" over the impending constitutional crisis that will almost certainly envelop the entire United Kingdom.
No doubt there is an element of party politicking in Mr Cameron's proposals for English only MP's to vote on English only parliamentary business, if only to negate the electoral bias that the Labour Party has traditionally enjoyed within the UK's constitutional boundaries. That having been said however, it is perhaps no surprise that the Labour leadership are just as keen to exploit the current constitutional crisis for their own narrow party political benefit, by attempting to find an alternative solution within their own traditional Labour heartlands, in the regions, cities and larger metropolitan areas where their own support networks are particularly strong. Rather than just settling for a shared House of Commons, which might host separate "English" and "British" parliamentary sessions on different days of the week, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats would much rather fragment the country even further by devolving substantive powers to the cities and regions of England, their own party's areas of political influence, despite the fact that ordinary voters in such areas don't generally want or indeed need such localised executive powers.
But of course therein lies the real issue, the real purpose behind the suggestion from the likes of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party, that rather than dispersing power from the centre to the people, they are in fact moving executive power from central government to their own regional or city power bases, where their parties tend to hold influence, where they have the political infrastructure, where they have the armies of activists on the ground. One only has to look at the likes of London and the other large metropolitan areas where the Labour Party has significant numbers of traditional supporters; and where it is jokingly said that you could pin a red rosette on a dog and see it elected to office. Imagine then if these regions, these metropolitan areas, these cities were handed real executive power, one where they could raise or lower taxes, choose where and what to spend all their monies on, choose who to pay welfare to, choose who to house, who to educate, who to treat, to care for? Try taking a look at the small number of cities that already have elected mayors. How representative are they? How effective are they? Do their citizens get any better treated, are they wealthier, happier, better fed, better housed, better educated, better represented?
Just how representative are the elected mayors of Liverpool and Leicester, when it was the councils of those two cities that took the decision to have a mayor, irrespective of what the local people may or may not have wanted? If elected mayors are such a major step forward, why did the electorates of both Stoke-on-Trent and Hartlepool vote to get rid of theirs and revert to a council leader and cabinet? If local people were so desperate for devolved powers, in the form of elected mayors, or regional assemblies, why in 2012 did only one city, Bristol, vote for a directly elected mayor and yet nine other cities rejected the idea? Up to May 2014 there are reported to have been fifty-one local referendums held with regard to the creation of an elected mayor, with sixteen cities choosing to have one, as opposed to thirty-five cities that rejected the idea, a ratio of roughly 2:1 against the post. Interestingly, average voter turnout for these referenda has been around 30%, although where YES campaigns have been successful the winning margin was thought to have averaged around 45%, the same level as the YES campaign for Scottish Independence, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Noticeably of the sixteen elected mayors currently in post in England, eight of them (50%) are Labour representatives, whilst two are Liberal Democrats, four are independents and the remaining two are Conservatives, perhaps illustrating why the Labour Party in particular believes that more devolution to the cities and regions of England is such an amazingly good idea.
Part of the problem is that we have successive governments endlessly listening to the likes of think tanks like ResPublica and others, who continually tell them what they should be doing to engage the voting public, how to spread the wealth and/or improve the lives of the UK population, but without taking the time to actually talk to the public themselves and find out what it is that they want, dream of, aspire to. More politicians, more lobbyists, more think tanks, more so-called experts, either national or local will not fix the fundamental problem that affects British political life, which is a basic distrust of, disinterest in and disengagement with politics generally and politicians specifically. After all, a crooked or incompetent politician, be they local, national or even international is still basically a crooked or incompetent individual, regardless of whether they're based in Brussels, London or Manchester. Not all national politicians are rubbish legislators or dire public administrators, just as not all local councillors are truly representative of their local communities, or indeed actually interested in the lives and troubles of their local constituents.
The fact that in the aftermath of the near constitutional disaster that was the Scottish Independence referendum all three major political parties instinctively reverted to type, in the narrow minded, adversarial, politically biased manner that they generally do, perhaps best illustrates why our four countries of the United Kingdom are where they are; and will no doubt continue to be so, for the foreseeable future. Putting it bluntly, if there's a way of screwing the country up, then our current crop of politicians, both local and national, will find a way of doing that, just so long as it best serves their own narrow party interests. Centrally or locally, the idea of the political classes actually allowing "the people" further empowerment, so that they can truly scrutinise, oversee, or hold their elected representatives to account is little more than a fantasy, a false dawn, being sold to a largely gullible and indifferent public, who will no doubt be further exploited as a result of it. 

Friday 19 September 2014

Better Together By Being Forced Further Apart?

So, the Scottish referendum is all over and done with for now; the politics of fear having finally overcome the politics of hope; and we can now safely retire to our normal state of political apathy, safe in the knowledge that our 300-year-old union is still safe and secure in the hands of the politicians, bankers, business leaders, foreign commentators, lobbyists and newspaper editors, whose opinions undoubtedly helped to determine the final outcome of this extremely important national debate.
Clearly no-one should be surprised that the Better Together campaign were keen to highlight the rather obvious and numerous issues and potential dangers that would face an independent Scotland and it's native population, including the subjects of a national currency, debt, employment, healthcare, as well as a myriad of other competencies that any newly independent country might face, once it emerged from the relative safety of a longstanding economic and political union. What was perhaps more surprising was that the fact that the separatist movement utterly failed to offer the electorate a reasoned and compelling argument to such obvious concerns, other than to suggest that they were either disingenuous or unrealistic. It was hardly a surprise therefore that a majority of Scottish voters, in the quiet of the polling booth; and having considered vital issues such as their mortgages, pensions, borrowing, as well as their shared histories and experiences, ultimately decided to stick with what they knew, rather than what they didn't. In other words they chose to put their heads before their hearts and in some respects they should therefore be commended for taking, what was in the circumstances, the most reasonable decision they were being offered.
Of course in reality and thanks in no small part to the actions of the former Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, Scotland and its people didn't have to face a stark choice of "something" or "nothing", but instead were latterly offered a third option of "more something", in the form of a Devo-Max option, which British Prime Minister David Cameron had initially refused to the Scottish people. As one commentator put it, not only was Scotland having its cake and eat it, but was subsequently given some of the other British nation's cake as a sweetener. Now, with the exceptions of National Defence, Foreign Policy and overall Economic Policy, a newly engaged Scotland will be offered almost unilateral control of its own taxes, healthcare, welfare, education and pretty much every other social, economic and political competency that might otherwise be deemed to make a nation independent.
For both pro-unionists and pro-independence supporters in Scotland these proposed new economic and political arrangements much surely represent a win-win solution to a serious constitutional issue that has not and will not go away forever. As a semi-autonomous Scotland gains increasing amounts of power from the centre, so over time many of the issues that this time have proved to be a barrier to full independence will inevitably be swept away, as future Scottish administrations take steps to address the outstanding concerns about a national currency, debt, investment, employment and healthcare, through the use of their own newly acquired tax raising and revenue spending powers. Just how long it will be before a new Scottish Independence campaign takes hold in that country is uncertain, but given that Mr Cameron's Coalition government, courtesy of Gordon Brown, have already agreed to offer a form of "Home Rule" to Scotland, the prospect of yet another referendum on the subject, doesn't seem to be that far away.
Such future developments though, almost certainly presuppose that Mr Cameron and his coalition government can actually get such wide-ranging proposals through the House of Commons in the first place, which isn't as assured as one might first suppose. With one wary eye on next year's General Election, a significant number of sitting Conservative MP's are thought to be concerned that too many concessions to the Scots might play very badly with an already irritated English electorate, especially one that sees itself being disadvantaged by a further transfer of powers to Scotland's devolved parliament. Even though the Devo-Max option has only been offered to the Scottish electorate in the past couple of weeks, already a number of leading Tory backbenchers have called for their English voters to be granted similar powers, in return for the measures receiving their support in Westminster.
In response to this growing backlash, this morning Prime Minister Cameron has publicly announced that the three remaining British electorates, English, Welsh and Northern Irish can expect to receive further devolved powers, in the wake of his government's offer to the Scottish people. It might be argued therefore that in essence Great Britain, or the United Kingdom as we have previously known it, is in fact going to be dead and buried, to be replaced by a new federation of four individual nations, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of these four distinct entities will have its own political executive, responsible for the provision of its various day-to-day services, including tax raising and revenue spending, whilst an overarching British political administration would continue to be responsible for shared interests such as defence, foreign affairs and overall economic policy.
However, with the European Union already attempting to take control of a shared defence strategy, as well as a common foreign and overseas policy and the European Central Bank increasingly at the heart of European financial planning, one can only speculate to just how long it will be before even these vitally important instruments of government are essentially sub-contracted out, bringing an end to the concept of Great Britain, as a separate entity entirely.
The more cynical and sceptical amongst us might have cause to be alarmed at some of the suggestions currently being put forward by the likes of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, to essentially carve up our country into either regional or metropolitan bodies, even though such regionalisation and localisation has already been rejected by the English electorate when they were offered city mayors and regional assemblies. Already we have had Police & Crime Commissioners foisted on local communities without their permission, with the result that most were elected without any meaningful public mandate and without the means to sack them if they have acted against the public interest. Quite how such unrepresentative, unwanted and virtually unaccountable creations can ever be regarded as actually benefiting the local communities they purport to serve is beyond reason, although obviously reason seems to play little part in the thinking and planning processes of the Westminster elite, who are generally the architects of such insufferable and ill-thought-out designs.
At the same time, one of the most obvious problems facing the creation of these proposed new semi-autonomous national assemblies or parliaments is that posed by the "West Lothian Question", which is the entitlement of Scottish MP's to debate and vote on entirely English matters in Westminster. Currently, a significant number of Liberal Democrat and Labour MP's represent Scottish constituencies and as such are entitled to vote on any and all matters in the House of Commons, including those involving entirely English issues. For many English representatives in the House, it is absurd that a person who is essentially a foreign MP can have influence over and vote on issues unrelated to his or her own country, whilst an English MP has absolutely no right or influence over what happens in Scotland. In order to address this particular issue it has been suggested that either England needs its own full-time assembly, to mirror those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; or alternatively that an English only parliament, comprising only English elected MP's, is held on specific days of the week at Westminster and would exclude any Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish MP's from voting on such English only matters.
On the face of it, it would seem to make sense and be cheaper to go for the second option; that of having English only days at Westminster, from which foreign MP's were excluded. However, it has been argued that these excluded representatives, who hold no place within their own country's separately elected assemblies would almost inevitably become second-class MP's, ostensibly because they are only employed by and involved with wholly "British" parliamentary matters, rather than British, English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish ones. With the Liberal Democrats having eleven Scottish MP's within parliament and the Labour Party forty-one representatives in the House, it is easy to understand quite why neither party would be keen to adopt such a practice, because for them to do so would automatically diminish their party's political influence in the Commons. It may even be the case that a future Labour Party will win a future General Election, but be unable to complete any of its government business because its forty-one Scottish MP's are prevented from sitting in Westminster when English only legislation is both being debated and voted on.
With such potentially damaging problems facing all of the three mainstream parties in Westminster and given the low calibre of most of the elected representatives sitting in the Commons, there is undoubtedly a real risk that poorly constructed and cobbled together solutions will be adopted, simply to get the necessary Scottish legislation onto the Statute book before the next General Election in May 2015. Having found himself caught up in a constitutional crisis of his own making, firstly by offering the SNP an independence referendum in the first place, then by underestimating the size of the task itsef; and finally, by allowing Gordon Brown to offer a form of Home Rule to the Scottish electorate, Mr Cameron now finds himself with the mammoth task of having to fundamentally rebuild the entire British parliamentary system from scratch.
Not only has he got to satisfy the heightened expectations of the Scottish people, whilst the SNP leadership continues to badger and harry him, but he has to try and replicate that idea of Home Rule for the English, the Welsh and the Northern Ireland electorates as well; and all of them before May 2015, which is only some eight months away. In order to make that work to everyone's satisfaction he has to solve the problem of an English only assembly or parliament, resolve the question of the Barnet formula with regards to regional funding, draft legislation to authorise tax raising powers for the various regional authorities, create a means of federalising the four new British regions, authorise the transfer of increased regional control over education, healthcare, welfare, taxes, etc; as well as carry out any other government business that needs to be completed before the end of the current parliament in May 2015. Such a task would be near impossible even if everything and everyone was onboard with the government, but it is hard to imagine that Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Tory backbenchers, the SNP, Welsh Labour or the various Northern Ireland parties won't find something to complain about as the individual regional settlements are in the process of being constructed.
In some respects Mr Cameron couldn't have done more damage to Britain, its reputation, its regions, its constitution or its people, had he put them all in a box, given them a good shake and then thrown them up in the air, just to see where they would land. What with his administration's austerity measures, student fees, gay marriage, foreign policy, their Libyan adventure, bedroom tax, lack of negotiations over Europe and his catastrophic handling of the Scottish Independence issue, it is perhaps no surprise at all that we now find ourselves in a much more perilous position constitutionally that we have ever been before in our history. With leadership such as his, tainted as it is by the divisiveness and federalist ideology of his deputy, Mr Clegg, no-one should be surprised that our four nations are systematically being driven further and further apart from one another, but then, maybe that was the intention all along?

Saturday 13 September 2014

What Now UK? Petty Kingdoms And City States?

With only a few days to go until the much anticipated Scottish Independence referendum, the outcome is thought to remain very much in the balance, which is perhaps surprising, given the overwhelming amount of both positive and negative propaganda that has been hurled at the Scottish electorate by the respective YES and NO camps over the past couple of weeks. Depending on which side they choose to believe, by next weekend Scots will either be living in a Scottish Nationalist utopia, or an economically bankrupt state, in a Scotland that has finally chosen to throw off the oppressive shackles of English imperialism, or a country that has finally seen the value of remaining within an economic and political union that has helped to change and shape the world we all live in today.
In a sense, the entire Scottish Independence debate could surely be boiled down to a simple choice being made between heart and head, between what the Scots know they represent, as part of a modern United Kingdom, as opposed to what they might aspire to be outside of it. Economic scare-mongering aside, there is little doubt that an independent Scotland could survive and perhaps indeed even thrive outside of the United kingdom, but the question still remains, are the Scottish people brave enough, or aspirational enough to take that huge leap of faith into the unknown; that the cause of national independence represents or calls for? No doubt, we'll all just have to wait and see what happens next Thursday, when the population of Scotland finally decide whether it's their heads or their hearts that will ultimately guide them into making a choice over their futures?
Regardless of what happens in Scotland this coming Thursday though, the ramifications of the Scottish Independence debate are going to be huge, if only in terms of how Britain, the United Kingdom, with or without Scotland, is going to be governed in the future; that fact is inevitable! If nothing else, the debate surrounding Scotland's future status, as with those of Wales and Northern Ireland, has simply helped to expose the underlying discrepancies and inequalities felt by the largest partner in the union, England. Clearly it cannot be right that the biggest geographical, economic and social entity in our 300-year-old union is the only part of the United Kingdom that doesn't have its own individual political representative body, whilst the other three countries do, that is a wholly ridiculous state of affairs!
However, through the creation of an entirely English legislative body, along with the existence of the three already devolved regional parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the federalisation of the United Kingdom, already begun in part, would then be complete. Although the idea of regional assemblies, in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would doubtless solve the rancour surrounding issues like the "West Lothian Question", the ability of outside non-English MP's being able to vote on what are English only issues, ultimately the existence of regional assemblies not only represents a fracturing of national governance, but also increases the likelihood of further regionalisation and federalisation in the future.
Only this week, in a direct response to the Scottish Independence debate we have seen Nick Clegg publicly promote the idea of further devolution, not only to the four regions of the United Kingdom, but also to various large cities and metropolitan areas scattered around the country. So the possibility exists that not only will we see further powers being handed down to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, not only the creation of an England only assembly, but also the creation of a handful of economically powerful city states, which will have the powers to put their own local interests above those of the rest of the country. Even though the initial suggestion has only been to hand control of local business rates, taxes and a share of national income tax over to local authority control, it seems almost inevitable that over time increasing amounts of local revenue raising and spending powers will be subcontracted to the various city councils and local authorities, if only to match those powers currently being granted to the likes of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland regional administrations. 
One could only imagine what the overall national impact would be if the likes of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, etc. etc. all started to safeguard and protect their own local economies, over and above the interests of other neighbouring city states. London is already reported to be creating ten times as many jobs as anywhere else in the United Kingdom, such is its ability to suck talent from other regions of the UK, at a direct human and economic cost to the likes of Scotland, Wales, the North East, the North West, the Midlands, etc. With other powerful city states given the powers to compete with London, would we then start to see a series of bidding wars begin between such regional centres, as each attempted to attract businesses from one to the other? And what happens to those areas of the UK that don't currently have such economically powerful city states within their regional boundaries? Would they be left to wither and die? Would their indigenous workforce be systematically drawn off to work within the nearest regional powerhouse, creating a new London-type metropolis within the North East, North West, or Wales, etc?
And if this new devolution of powers to the regions inadvertently or deliberately creates a series of competing British federalised states, a new, modern day version of the historic Anglo Saxon "heptarchy" (the seven petty kingdoms), where would a unified Britain stand then? A certain logic would also tend to suggest that a politically powerful, highly competitive and economically independent London, Manchester, Liverpool, Scotland, Wales, etc. might then at some point seek to protect its own markets, resources, infrastructure and trade routes, either through a series of locally binding by-laws, a city police force, or even heaven forbid, a locally raised city defence force (ie: a militia or an army).
Rather than devolved powers being a forward step in the development of our country, there is an argument to suggest otherwise; that devolving powers to the regions, to powerful cities is a backward step, something that diminishes our unity, rather than increases it. After all, it wasn't that long ago that towns and cities throughout England reserved the right to set their own by-laws, set their own trading tariffs and to decide who could and couldn't live or work within their city boundaries. Many of these same towns and cities used to refuse to take responsibility for their sick, their elderly or the unemployed, often by refusing them access to their communities, or by shipping them back to the towns and cities where they were born. How long do you imagine it would be before one of these new devolved regions, or city states would start finding ways to exclude those citizens it considered to be uneconomic, or a drain on their resources? How long would it be, before over time, one or other devolved region or city state decided that they didn't want to provide welfare benefits, or free healthcare, or housing, or education to their less worthwhile citizens?
How long will it be before our city states like London start to introduce local ordinances to control peoples access to specific parts of the city itself, gated communities if you will; where unless you're employed there, or live there, you can't go there? After all, we have had numerous cases already of various London boroughs exiling their residents to other faraway parts of the country, ostensibly because it's cheaper to house them there than it is in London itself. If such things are happening today, then just how long will it be before these same London authorities choose to systematically pick and choose who they want to live in the city, basing their decisions on a person's race, religion, income or employment status? None of us can say it cannot happen, because in a sense it already does! 
Although such suggestions and potential outcomes might seem to be fanciful or highly unlikely; and even though administrative centralisation is often problematic and cumbersome, if unity brings strength, then division will almost inevitably bring with it inherent weakness. A single overarching political system, such as we have in the UK may not be perfect, but at the very least it offers fairness, uniformity and a guarantee of sorts that everyone can and will be treated equally. Were there a convincing case to be made that local politicians or business leaders were any more sensitive to peoples needs than national politicians are, then the actual basis for devolving more powers to the regions or individual cities might well be justified, but as Rotherham and any number of other scandals have proved beyond question, local representatives are just as good and just as bad as their national counterparts when it comes to matters of personal judgement.
Rather than empowering local people, I tend to take the view that devolution of powers to the regions is simply an attempt by national politicians to abandon their own responsibility for managing the country, casting blame from themselves to other local representatives, or worse still, to the people themselves, even though the electorate will still have very little influence over the actual outcomes. Also, by actively encouraging the fracturing of our generally centralised government structures, into what is fundamentally a more federalised and regional nation, people like Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband are putting the very future of our country at stake. The political leaderships of both Wales and Scotland have already openly declared that they favour remaining in the European Union regardless of any changes that may or may not be offered in the future. How would that work, if certain regions of the UK wanted to remain within the EU, whilst others wanted to leave? It would be a absurd situation if half the country's regions wanted to remain in the EU, whilst the other half wanted to leave, or if a metropolitan area wanted to stay, whilst the surrounding countryside wanted to go. Centralised government leads to centralised planning and centralised strategies, which if conducted properly offer a greater prospect of majority support by the peoples of the United Kingdom.
History has proved that localism, tribalism, regionalism, call it what you will, doesn't work for the majority, which is why most modern countries have tended towards greater centralisation, rather than less. The fact that increased central government within the United Kingdom itself doesn't and hasn't always worked thus far, probably says more about our current political system than it does about having a centralised strategy per se'.
The fact that successive governments of all political stripes have deliberately chosen to benefit certain areas, whilst at the same time acted to the detriment of others, has probably had more to do with specific political sentiment that any other wider socio-economic considerations. The fact that London, has gained significantly from being the location for virtually every central government office in the country has undoubtedly resulted from choices being made by specific politicians, as has the fact that thousands of businesses have subsequently chosen to locate their corporate headquarters close to the seat of government, in London. The point is that even if certain powers are now devolved to the regions, that in itself isn't going to prevent national politicians making decisions based on their own narrow party political interests, it simply allows them to blame other people for their personal failure to spread the nation's wealth and prosperity to every corner of the country.
Regardless of how much limited power is devolved down to the regions by this or any other government, the likelihood is that a future Labour administration would still favour its own traditional regional heartlands, when it came to extra financial investment; and the same would undoubtedly be true for the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and any other major political party that was in a position to do so. The failure of our present political system is not that power needs to be devolved to be closer to the people, but that politicians need to take more notice of what the electorate, the people, want and expect from them, as their elected representatives. Offering the electorate a say on local planning applications, or business rates, or local services is all very well, but is a pretty pointless exercise if at the same time these same national politicians ignore the peoples wishes when it comes to major issues like welfare, defence, the NHS or our continued membership of the European Union. Allowing the British people the power to establish rather meaningless and potentially damaging petty kingdoms and city states in their particular area of the country is not a solution for the many problems that affect our country, but perhaps ridding ourselves of the crooks and the incompetents who suggest such a plan of action might prove to be far more effective in the long run?  

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Scotland & England: More Divided Than Ever

Reading most of the national press over the past few days, we could all be forgiven for thinking that in ten days time the Scottish people will almost certainly take the irreversible decision to bring an end to the 300-year-old political and economic Union that has tied the peoples of England and Scotland together, in what is widely regarded as the world's most successful national partnership.
Quite whether the time is right to dissolve this historic union is open to debate, although it is clear that there is much underlying antagonism on the part of some Scottish Nationalists, who would make and have consistently made the argument that Scotland is and has been the subject of what is fundamentally blatant English colonialism for the past three centuries, even though the evidence would tend to suggest otherwise.
As has been pointed out by much more knowledgeable scholars of the subject, the mainstays of Scottish nationalism, its culture, language, legal system and educational systems have remained largely outside of English control or influence throughout the period of the Union, ostensibly in recognition of the historic differences that have always existed and will continue to exist between the two neighbouring countries. For anyone to suggest that Scotland has somehow been cleansed of its Celtic cultural, legal or educational heritage by the creeping Anglo-Saxon influence of England is surely an absurd argument to make, especially when so much of Scotland's current cultural heritage has been actively shaped by the Scottish people themselves.
At the same time of course another great complaint from the nationalist corner, is that the lives, incomes, jobs, environments and communities of every Scottish citizen are being ruled over and trampled upon by the foreign English parliament that sits in Westminster, even though that same particular parliament happens to be made up of assorted Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, although clearly not in equal numbers. It also seems to have escaped the Scots Nationalists notice that significant numbers of their countrymen have held high office within that same British Parliament, with very few complaints having been made about the 11 former British Prime Ministers who were either Scottish born or of Scottish extraction. Neither was there much of a fuss made about the hundreds of Scottish MP's who have held ministerial office over the period of the 300 years that the union has been in place, whose own government's policies, whether as part of a Labour or Conservative administration have directly affected Scotland and its people, for better or for worse.
What seems to be the most puzzling, is the idea, the theory, or even the widely held belief that Scotland has in some way been treated much more badly by successive Westminster governments than just about anywhere else in the British Isles, a firmly held view in the minds of some Scottish nationalists that appears to have little or no basis in fact. One of the most voiced criticisms levelled by the nationalist cause is that Margaret Thatcher's ruthless de-industrialisation of Britain during the 1980's was somehow aimed specifically at Scotland and its native industries, when in fact virtually every industrial centre in the country suffered a similar fate, not just Scotland. Then there is the issue of the ill-conceived Poll Tax, which some nationalists continue to carry around, as if it resembles the mark of a martyr state, forgetting of course that every single area of the country was eventually forced to bear the crippling costs of the poll tax, until such time as it was finally abandoned by a later Conservative government.
These events haven't made Scotland in anyway unique or unusual, they just make it representative of a much wider and larger Britain that has experienced truly tumultuous times over the period of the past 40 years or so. Are the Scots more deserving, or more aggrieved, or more deserving than those Britons who live and work in other hard hit areas of Britain, in the North East, the North West, in Wales, in Northern Ireland? No, they are not! But maybe they just choose to believe that they are? Increasingly it seems, there is a tendency for certain areas of the country, certain groups, to regularly claim that they are being specifically mistreated, demeaned or discriminated against by the powers that be, when in reality they are being treated as well, or as badly, as millions of their fellow citizens. The truth is that these semi-professional whingers seem to believe that they deserve special consideration when tough socio-economic decisions are having to be made by various national governments; that only they should be exempt from the pain, whilst their fellow citizens living elsewhere in the United Kingdom are not. 
During the current Scottish independence campaign, which has been marked by claim and counter-claim on both sides of the argument, one thing has become abundantly clear, no-one really knows how well, or how badly an independent Scottish economy will fare once it is exposed to the chill winds of the international markets. Either way though, it seems to be the case that should the Scottish people choose to go their own way and vote for independence, then the subsequent separation between Scotland and the remaining parts of Britain should be absolute; if only to ensure that there can be no going back on the decision once it is made. Geographical neighbours we may have to be, but should the Scottish people choose to cast aside our historic relationship, then that should be an end to it for once and for all.
As it is, it appears that our political elite are now so horrified at the prospect of a "YES" vote in the forthcoming Scottish referendum that they are fully prepared to offer any and all sorts of incentives to the Scottish people, in return for their rejecting outright independence. Whether or not these offers of Devolution Max or Home Rule is sufficient to assuage the separatist cause will only be known after the public vote in just over a week's time, but even if it is, just how much damage will such blatant bribery have done to the wider social fabric of Britain generally? Why should the peoples of England, Wales and Northern Ireland accept that Scottish citizens are granted more autonomy than them? Why should they be expected to act as insurers of Scotland's future prosperity, when they have little or no influence over the political management of this new semi-autonomous state? Why should the Bank of England become the "lender of last resort" for what is essentially a foreign state? Such offers, or considerations shouldn't or wouldn't normally be offered, but given the level of political panic amongst the three traditional parties in Westminster, we now have the completely absurd situation whereby the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems are essentially offering the Scottish electorate a blank cheque on possible new executive powers, in order to keep them in the Union. Quite what the English, Welsh and Northern Irish electorates will make of such possible power transfers remains to be seem, but the fact that they haven't even been consulted on such measures must be causing a great deal of concern amongst the 60-odd million British citizens who live outside of Scotland's national borders; and who would doubtless be directly affected by such changes, but have no say in them. 
It is surely a legitimate demand that English, Welsh and Northern Irish revenues should only be spent on English, Welsh and Northern Ireland's national needs, rather than those of an partially independent nation, which just happens to be attached to England's northern border. Why should a taxpayer in London, Belfast or Cardiff see their hard earned money sent to and spent in Edinburgh, when there is so much to be done in their own British cities? If Scotland wants all the trappings and the paraphernalia of an independent nation state then surely it is only right that Scottish taxpayers alone should meet the cost of such institutions and accoutrements? Similarly, if Scotland's native population, commercial investors and local businesses want to guarantee their own national currency, be that the pound or anything else, then surely it is not unreasonable for them to have to establish their own financial institutions, regulators and central bank, rather than choosing to rely on a historic relationship that they themselves have chosen to turn their backs on.
No doubt like many others in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, I cannot wait for the Scottish Independence referendum campaign to come to an end; and for the Scottish population to finally deliver their verdict, whichever side of the argument they ultimately decide to come down on. At least by the 20th September 2014 the entire country should have gained some degree of certainty over what the future holds, both for Scotland itself and for the remaining parts of Britain. If nothing else, the Scottish peoples true feelings towards the Union will have been exposed for what it is, for good or ill; in that it will have been seen as being valuable, or valueless. It is probably only after the Scots have expressed their view on the subject that we will finally begin to see the views and opinions of the real British majority, the bulk of the population who live in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; and who have not been permitted a vote over the future, of what is after all, their Union too!
In some ways there is undoubtedly an argument that it would be best perhaps if the Scottish nationalists were to triumph in the current referendum campaign, if only because there can be no going back on the bitterness and division that the independence question has caused, not only amongst individual families in Scotland, but also between the four countries that currently make up the United Kingdom. For many, the nationalist campaign has been fundamentally constructed on a series of publicly aired historic grievances and personally cynical ill-will, virtually all of which have been aimed at the majority English population via their elected representatives in Westminster. Although it remains to be seen whether or not Scotland will choose to remain part of the Union, perhaps the one certainty of the entire referendum exercise is that it has left the two main countries in the alliance, Scotland and England, more divided than at any other time in its 300 year history?