Real devolution is about taxes

The Scottish referendum was supposed to change everything. It was supposed to have created a constitutional crisis that Westminster politicians could not ignore. Well, the Labour and Conservative party conferences have been doing their very best to resurrect a different narrative, with a rapid return to the usual political nonsense. But before long the House of Commons will have to consider further devolution to Scotland, which will bring matters back into focus. It is still worth thinking about the practical issues of devolution. And the biggest issue that needs clearer thinking is tax.

Politics is not just about creating, changing or abolishing laws. It is about balancing revenues and expenditures. In fact, in modern politics, this latter is probably the most important job of politics. How much to tax? Where to spend the money? Unfortunately, the British model of devolution shies away from the taxation side of things. Central government passes on cash grants to the devolved authorities, who have very limited tax-raising powers of their own. Devolution is about spending priorities, not about how much to spend overall. To get more money, a devolved authority has to apply political pressure to the central government, who may or may not grant it. This creates a very unhealthy tension between the various levels of government. Or, to put it another way, if the devolved government finds itself short of funding, it can just blame the central government.

And the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been skilfully exploiting this tension to undermine the union. Scotland does have a rather fudged right to vary the rate of income tax – but is has never used it. Instead, it is blaming the UK government, and hence the union itself, for imposing “neoliberal” policies on Scotland. In the referendum there was a highly mendacious, but effective, claim that the NHS would be safer in an independent Scotland – in spite of the fact that the local NHS is already run by the Scottish government.

But the ability to raise taxes is one of the essential things that defines what a government is. Meaningful devolution, whether to the British nations, regions or local authorities, must involve the freedom to tax. There are many ways in which this is done in the various systems across the world. The most extreme is in the United States, where the states have almost unlimited freedom to tax, and where local taxes are clearly separate from federal taxes. That latter point is very important to achieve democratic accountability. In other countries the freedoms of devolved authorities is much more tightly defined. It is well worth thinking about what sorts of tax it is practical to devolve.

The classic economic answer to this is that the more geographically tied a tax is, the easier it is to devolve. So taxes on property are good to devolve; taxes on financial investments and capital are not. Let’s look at the British tax system in this light.

There are four main types of property tax. Council Tax, Business rates, Stamp Duty and Capital Gains Tax (CGT). The revenue from Council Tax already goes to local authorities, but its structure is set at national level, and powers to vary it are heavily constrained (though the Scottish government has fewer restrictions). Business rates were highly centralised, but this is being released back to local authorities in the typical sort of fudged British way that makes accountability unclear. Stamp Duty and CGT are tangled up with the same taxes on highly mobile assets, and are centralised. It would be quite easy to disentangle Stamp Duty on property transactions and devolve them – but much more difficult for CGT. But we have to be careful; financial engineers can blur the distinction between property and financial investment (the property can be held by an investment trust, for example), so anti-avoidance provisions would need to be designed.

At the other extreme we have capital taxes. These are Income Tax on the income derived, Stamp Duty and CGT again, and Corporation Tax. I will come back to Income Tax. Corporation Tax is the most contentious issue. Both the Scottish and Northern Irish governments want to be able to set their own rates. But this is usually dismissed as being impractical, or leading to tax avoidance in a sort of negative-sum game. Nothing is more mobile than capital, after all, and Corporation Tax is a quintessential tax on capital. This line of argument is overdone. One idea might be to determine profits at a UK level, but allocate using some variation of the “Massachusetts formula” using property, employment and sales as the basis of regional allocation. This works well enough in the USA, and I have long advocated its use internationally too. If all a company has in Scotland is a brass plate on a registered office, the Scottish Government would not be able to tax it.

In between capital and property we have people – or more properly income earned through employment, whether directly or deferred, though pensions. These are taxed through Income Tax and National Insurance. Income Tax is the most politically accountable of all taxes, and so it is quite natural that most debate centres around how this might be delegated. But this is very messy. It is also levied on investment income, and then you have the complexities associated with rate bands and tax free allowances. It would be much better to devolve National Insurance, either just that paid by employers, or including the Employee tax too. It could be renamed “Local Income Tax”. The tax was originally set up to fund social benefits such as pensions and unemployment benefit – but the Treasury has long since broken that link. There is one important issue with it though: it is not levied on pensions. But pensions should be a UK issue that is not devolved. Regions with a high density of pensioners would suffer from a low tax base: but this can be equalised – and I don’t think it is unhealthy for regions and localities to have an incentive to encourage employment, rather than just property ownership.

Two other areas of taxation are important. First is VAT (and theoretically, any sales tax). This could be localised, but there are two difficulties. First is that with the development of online sales, it is increasingly difficult to locate a sales geographically – something that has become a big problem in the US. The second is that VAT is tangled up in European Union treaties and law. It is best left alone. The other area of taxation is natural resources, and especially oil and gas. This can be geographically isolated, though most oil extracted in English waters is landed in Scotland. This is the biggest bone of contention between Scotland and Westminster. But I would be tempted to call the Scots bluff and devolve it. After all most of the issues of infrastructure that go with resource extraction fall on the Scots government.

So what is my straw man for Scotland, or any other devolved region? First, I think a diversity of sources of revenue is a big help.  I would create a new Local Income Tax in place of or alongside National Insurance, that would initially be structured in the same way. Next I would allow Corporation Tax to be split according to the Massachusetts formula, with variable rates. I would give devolved authorities more powers over Council Tax and Business Rates. I would devolve oil taxation. I would consider establishing a new property gains tax in place of CGT on property.

A fantasy I am afraid. The UK Treasury remains the most powerful force in British government. It has no intention of conceding any of this – and would feel the state would be fatally undermined if it did. It would rather fudge something around Income Tax – the one tax that I think should be entirely “Federal”.

 

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Bombing Isis: why am I so uncomfortable?

Paddy Ashdown says it’s OK. I supported the Nato intervention in Libya. As British MPs meet to consider whether the country should actively join the US and other nations in bombing the outfit that calls itself “The Islamic State”, and which I still refer to as “Isis”, this should be quite straightforward. But I have deep misgivings.

There are enough reasons why such action should be supported. Firstly Isis are evil. They represent a particular sort of totalitarianism that I detest, casually terminating the lives of anybody that gets in its way. Its attempt to appropriate the religion of Islam is as contemptible as the Ku Klux Klan’s similar appropriation of Christianity.

Secondly the action is legal under international law, provided that it stays within the boundaries of the Iraqi state, since the Iraqi government has requested it. Having said that I set less store by the norms of international law in such matters than many. It concedes too much power to sovereignty of national governments, and to the veto of UN Security Council members.

Thirdly, there is some level of direct threat. Isis has said that it wants to carry its crazy war into developed nations, including ours, through random acts of violence. It will kill any of our non-Muslim citizens that it can lay its hands on. Having said which it has not put much organisational effort into intervention in Western countries – being more interested in carving out its own statelet in Greater Syria.

I place some weight to showing solidarity with the USA. The Western powers are stronger if they act together, and we do have a very strong common interest. Still, the world view of many American politicians is ignorant nonsense, and we should not be too tied to them.

I find that my unease reflects a rather similar attitude with many on the political right to domestic politics. Actions driven by a  bleeding heart or anger can so often lead to the opposite of what we intend.

The first problem is dependency. The interventions by the USA and its allies in Iraq have led to an expectation that the Western powers will intervene to sort out any nasty problem in any neighbourhood (outside Russia, China or India, anyway). So the locals lose any incentive to sort out problems for themselves. We have seen this with Afghan government of Hamid Khazai. We have seen it with post Saddam governments in Iraq. They use the US security umbrella to carve out their own corrupt polities without any regard to their country’s long term future. They governments don’t even act as loyal allies.

The whole Isis mess was created by the failure of two governments: those of Syria and Iraq, drawing on the support of Iran and the Lebanese faction of Hezbollah. Their ineptitude created a political vacuum which Isis has exploited. They have shown themselves incapable and unfit to rule the areas that Isis now controls. But we have no other party to back, beyond the nascent Kurdish state. The US has wrought concessions from the Iraqi state, but I can’t see how these will be enough to regain the trust of the Sunni tribes. Past experience shows that as soon as US pressure is withdrawn, the Iraqi government reverts to type.

A further problem is lack of proximity. I firmly believe that the closer we as a country are to another, the more prepared we should be to intervene in its affairs. This is not just a matter of physical proximity, but also cultural. The Falkland Islands were (and are) close to Britain in that sense. Iraq and Syria are a long way off. I feel happier about our country intervening in Kosovo and Bosnia and, perhaps, Sierra Leone. If Turkey, which is on the edge of being a European nation, and is part of Nato, had chosen to involve itself in this affair, then perhaps we could make a case for helping its defence. But Turkey is staying firmly neutral.

I am not persuaded that this country’s participation in the 2003 gives us any obligation to help sort the mess out. I think responsibility for the mess lies with the Iraqi and Syrian governments. Neither is the presence of British volunteers amongst Isis’s ranks – though we should takes steps to reduce the flow of such people. However, I do think that our past involvement points towards humanitarian and economic assistance now.

And another thing. I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea that air power (including the use of drones) is some kind of morally clean way of involving ourselves in a conflict. It may put fewer of our servicemen’s lives at risk, but the death and destruction that they deal out is as real as anything that an infantryman does. And it leaves unanswered the question of who controls the ground after Isis has been beaten.

The world has a problem with failed states and power vacuums. This is what Isis exploited in Syria and Iraq. We also have Somalia, Libya and many other parts of the African continent. Post-imperial occupation by foreign powers has not proved a robust solution. Neither does the projection of Nato military might, outside Europe, anyway.

We need to find a better way. This needs to be led by the local powers, with perhaps further support as required through the UN. In the case of Iraq-Syria these local powers are Turkey, Iran and the Gulf Arab states. These powers somehow need to work out a new political settlement for the region, which, in my view, will require the redrawing of international boundaries. That Iran and Saudi Arabia have behaved in a highly irresponsible manner to date does not mean we can avoid making them part of the solution.

Perhaps President Obama’s coalition will help bring about such a resolution; he at least grasps the limits of military power better then most – though he is buffeted by the winds of US domestic politics. I would need to be convinced that this is so before endorsing any further British military intervention.

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Is austerity an economic failure or a fact of life?

The British Labour Party conference proved a bit of an anti-climax. After the excitement of the last week’s Scottish referendum this was probably inevitable. All the more so since the Labour leadership did not want to talk about the important issues that referendum has raised on for the British constitution. But this conference marked in important stage in the evolution of the Labour leadership’s policy platform. They have finally, publicly and unequivocally accepted austerity as the centrepiece of their economic policy. This is rather muted, of course. The right wing press, who still set the country’s news agenda, do not want to give Labour any credit for this. Labour’s left wing supporters still think that austerity is a failed economic strategy, promoted by a “neoliberal” elite as a means of shrinking the power of government. These supporters do not want to be too vocal this close to a General Election; besides they were soothed by some diversionary promises regarding Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) and the minimum wage. But this left wing critique of austerity bears further examination.

It is expounded with some clarity in today’s Guardian by the journalist Seumus Milne: Austerity has failed, and it isn’t only Labour’s core voters who want change. To start with Mr Milne points out that Labour’s core voters, working class people, are unhappy and Labour can’t take them for granted. In Scotland they defected en masse to the SNP’s Yes campaign – and its claim that Scottish independence meant that they could roll back austerity. In England Ukip is making inroads into Labour’s core vote. Labour can’t simply take these voters for granted and then go after the “centre ground” voters who are liable to be swayed by the right wing press. This is perfectly true, of course, but not very helpful in its own right.

He then goes on to the familiar critique of austerity (cutting back public expenditure), which is that it has failed both in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. In Britain, growth is based on shallow foundations: unfunded consumer expenditure; average living standards are still sinking and many poorer people are suffering real hardship. In other European countries, notably France, there is no growth at all. This critique builds on that of Keynesian economists. In the earlier years of the government’s austerity programme they suggested that by cutting demand, or refusing to stimulate it, austerity simply created a doom-loop of shrinkage – or failed to ignite a virtuous circle of positive demand. The cuts were simply too early. This critique was eagerly seized on by the left. The trouble is that in Britain it has been overtaken by events. Growth has returned, mainly as the result of increased consumer borrowing, but also through higher business investment. There is not need to use public money to stimulate the economy further. Now is the “later” that the Keynesians were talking about when they said the cuts should be made later. It is does not matter that the initial spurt of growth was based on shallow foundations, as Keynesian fiscal stimulus is open to exactly the same criticism.

In fact the government’s application of austerity never lived up to the rhetoric. The cuts have been relatively modest, and as a result the deficit (excess of government expenditure over taxes and other income) has not been reduced by anything like as much as the original plans. The government finances still look very shaky and unsustainable. To a large extent things have been propped up by the Bank of England buying up government debt (“Quantitative Easing”, or “printing money” as some economists would have it). This only works when inflation is not a serious threat, and the Bank has indicated that continued purchases are no longer sustainable.

Things get worse when you look at the details more closely. The Economist points out that the country’s tax revenues are not keeping up with the country’s growth rate, making the deficit harder to cut. The reasons are not entirely clear, but two contributory factors should cause those on the left to worry. The first is that the government has been rapidly advancing tax free allowances, a flagship policy of the Liberal Democrats. This has helped relieve the economic pressure on the oft-forgotten marzipan layer of Britain’s poor. Those who are working and do not qualify for state benefits. But it also means that if wages are stagnant the government sees little benefit from growth. The second, related, factor is that Britain’s tax take is heavily dependent on the very rich. The Economist says that the top 1% of earners are thought to contribute 28% of income tax receipts. The position of other taxes may not be so very different. That means that pressure on the very rich, and notably the banking sector, is choking off tax receipts. All this suggests that raising taxes without hurting the ordinary working classes will be very difficult to achieve.

The serious economic case against austerity is not quite dead, though. The FT’s Martin Wolf, for example, suggests that prolonged fiscal (and trade) deficits may be required to counterbalance the insistence of some countries, notably China, to run export surpluses, and so create a surplus of savings. But his suggestion is that state funded investment is the best way of achieving this, not the continued propping up of the benefits system and a high volume of public services. That still leaves the most painful aspects of austerity intact.

The fact is that some very powerful forces, global and local, are bearing down on economic growth. These include demographics, the evolution of the Chinese economy (reducing the supply of cheap exported manufactured goods – so important to developed world living standards in the 1990s and 2000s) and (perhaps) by a focus amongst the slightly better-off on quality of life rather than income maximisation. It was once thought that any well-functioning developed economy could grow at 2% a year. That now looks infeasible. Which makes the management of government debt (and private debt for that matter) a serious long-term problem. It gets worse, as to achieve any sort of growth requires the economy to become more efficient, not least in public services. This involves the sort disruptive changes that the left’s core supporters hate most of all.

To be fair on the left, though, one of the causes of low growth is the excessive accumulation of wealth by the very rich – and this can only be tackled using an agenda that looks leftwards. But chasing down this wealth is increasingly a global problem, that needs global solutions, and not socialism in one country. This is ironic, as one of the symptoms of working class disillusion is a rejection of internationalism. It is no coincidence that the right wing press is happy to undermine international institutions, though.

Mr Milne calls for some kind of post capitalist economic reform, with increased state intervention. It is hugely unclear what this reform agenda would comprise, and whether it could work. The last country to vocally reject capitalism was Venezuela, whose oil wealth allowed it to cock a snook at the capitalist world. That is ending in utter economic and social disaster. Starvation and oppression in North Korea, and terminal economic stagnation in Cuba offer no better way forward.

The world is changing, and many Britons hate it. But with large trade and fiscal deficits Britain must embrace change or face economic catastrophe. That is the truth that Labour’s leaders are facing up to – and it is not a spineless surrender to the forces of big business.

 

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So: who will lead the Con-Lab Grand Coalition that will be formed in May 2015?

Things aren’t going well for the Westminster political machine. Their short-term, focus-group and opinion poll led campaigning has missed or ignored the changing mood of voters. Things were bad enough with the rise of Ukip; they got a lot worse with the Yes-surge among former Labour supporters in Scotland. At this week’s Labour conference the party is desperately trying to get the political agenda back to familiar territory. It is failing, and in doing so it is losing the political initiative. In this unfamiliar political territory I want to indulge in a bit a bit of political fantasy. But ask yourself: just how unrealistic is it?

Roll forward to May 8, 2015, the day after Britain’s General Election. The Westminster parties lost control of the election agenda. In England Ukip have surged forward to take 30 seats, taking votes from all sides. In Scotland, angry and unreconciled Yes voters have moved in behind the SNP, who take another 30 seats. The Lib Dems, through a lot of hard local campaigning, luck with voter splits, and a dead-cat bounce, are relieved to end up with another 30 seats (a bit over half their 2010 tally). The Greens do well in national polling, though only pick up a small handful of seats. The Tories are the main victim of the changed situation in England, losing seats directly to Ukip, but also to Labour. They fall back by 40 seats to between 260 and 270. But Labour’s gains in England are partly neutralised by the advance of the SNP in Scotland. They end up with a very similar number of teats to the Conservatives, with a net 15-20 gains.

Both main parties are badly bruised: their share of votes has fallen; they are not in control of the political agenda. Only the inherent electoral bias towards incumbency has left them with so many seats. Both feel as if they have lost. And the parliamentary arithmetic is horrid. To form any kind of stable coalition government with smaller parties they will need to round up two of the Lib Dems, Ukip and SNP. For different reasons none of these parties want to play ball. For the Lib Dems it is a moment of reckoning, with open revolt against the party leadership, and a desperate feeling amongst the membership that they need to rebuild in opposition. Ukip are too toxic for the main parties, and their terms of engagement are too high. The SNP have no interest in the governance of the UK as a whole. If there is no natural governing majority, there is a comfortable and motivated opposition majority against any government led by one of the two main parties.

Meanwhile the fiscal deficit and the national debt remain large. The financial markets are jittery, which puts the financing of the deficit in question. The pound takes a tumble. With its yawning current account deficit Britain needs foreign financing. But this in turn requires a strong government able to keep the fiscal deficit in hand. The fragile recovery is in jeopardy, as investment is drying up, and property prices start to fall, as foreign investors take fright. The Treasury civil servants are worried and quickly set to work on their political contacts.

There is an obvious solution. One that has been tried in Germany, Austria and Greece. A Grand Coalition between the Conservatives and Labour. It slowly dawns on the senior figures in these parties that this is the only way out.

What would be the organising principle of the new Coalition? As Labour realises that it is no longer practical to use its Scottish MPs to ram through reforms of English public services, they are at last able to contemplate some form of new federal settlement for the UK. They also accept that the UK’s relationship with the European Union needs to be reset. Both sides agree to a Constitutional Convention. The idea is that this will come up with one or more referendum propositions in Autumn 2017, after which the country will move towards a new General Election. All this will secure the Conservative participation in the government. In return Labour will insist on a choice selection of its core policies: halting “privatisation” of the NHS (though not wholesale unpicking of the previous coalition’s reforms); perhaps the freeze on energy prices and reform of energy markets; maybe further rises tot he minimum wage; surely the reinstatement, in some form, of the 50p top tax rate and termination of the “bedroom tax”. Their proposed Mansion Tax is unlikely to make it though – such a significant change to the tax system hardly seems appropriate in a time of constitutional transition. Both sides will agree to something tokenistic on immigration.

But who will lead this government? Both Party leaders will face revolts from their own side. Mr Cameron will surely find his position untenable. Mr Miliband may even have lost his seat to the surging Ukip. The natural thing would be for the Prime Minister to come from whichever party is a nose in front in parliamentary seats. The popular vote can be used as a tie-breaker. The other party will no doubt insist on the Treasury.

On the Tory side, the obvious choice would have been William Hague. But he is stepping down at the next election. Other senior figures are: Theresa May, George Osborne or Boris Johnson. Ms May stands the best chance of these, though she does not come across as a particularly gifted politician. The other two are surely too blatantly political to be trusted enough by Labour. Another idea is to summon up a former senior figure from the back benches; Malcolm Rifkind would be an obvious candidate.

It is even harder to think of Labour candidates with the appropriate stature. Harriet Harman has the seniority, but I can’t see her as having enough clout. I’m not even sure if Margaret Beckett will be standing, and she is a bit old at 71 – though since this is something of a caretaker role, that is less of an obstacle than it might be. The existing front bench all seem to be lacking to some degree. Gordon Brown’s reputation may have been enhanced by his intervention in the referendum campaign, but there is no way that he can lead a coalition. Meanwhile Alistair Darling’s reputation has been diminished.

Is there a serious point to this fantastical speculation? Yes. As we see the rise of anti-politics, of political parties who are only interested in causing trouble, and not solving problems, then we must get used to the idea that previously bitter opponents will have to cooperate in government. The current coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may be foreshadowing the future of politics in ways that the current political chattering classes don’t yet understand.

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The post-referendum Hall of Shame: Cameron, Salmond, Farage, Miliband

Normal politics has been on hold for the last weeks of the Scottish referendum, as nobody from south of the border wanted to rock the boat. But that phoney war is well and truly over, as the party leaders and their followers have pitched in with a free-for-all on the previously little discussed subject of the UK constitution. It is a pretty unedifying spectacle, which demonstrates why politicians in Westminster (and Holyrood for that matter) aren’t trusted by the public. But some are behaving much worse than others.

First place in my Hall of Shame goes to our Prime Minister, the Conservative leader David Cameron. The ballot papers had not been fully counted before he launched into a manoeuvre designed with little other purpose than to embarrass the Labour party, and to protect the more controversial parts of the Coalition government’s reforms. He, along with the other party leaders, has committed to the rapid transfer of powers to the Scottish parliament – having been arm-twisted into doing so by his predecessor as PM, Gordon Brown – who was the star of the No campaign. He then suggested that that the English should get the same rights as the Scots, on the same timetable.

There are three ways in which this is mendacious. Firstly he does not mean giving English people the same rights as the Scots. That would mean a separate English parliament and executive (or perhaps a number of regional ones). It turns out what he means is stopping Scottish MPs from voting on laws in the UK Parliament that only affect England. This may be a good idea in itself, but it falls far short of any idea of devolution of power, or, as I prefer to look at it, the empowerment of voters and intermediate levels of government. Secondly, it is well-known that this is not as simple as it sounds. There is no recognised constitutional distinction between English laws and UK ones, something which becomes particularly difficult when it comes to financing. Which taxes are English, and which are general? This problem has defeated many great minds, so any attempt to ram changes through on a tight timetable is going to end badly. Thirdly, what the Scots have been afforded is many years of deliberation, and a number of referendums, about the sort of government that they want, leading up to the independence referendum, which secured a very high level of political engagement. Mr Cameron has no intention of offering the English any equivalent level of engagement. It’s just a stunt.

What Mr Cameron is trying to do is to highlight Labour’s plan to use their Scottish (and Welsh) MPs to unpick a number of Coalition reforms on English public services, most notably the NHS. That really is all he seems to care about. We should expect more from the holder of such a high and responsible office. But with a bit of luck he will be sabotaged by his own backbenchers, who, on the whole, are more principled, even though they generally scare me.

Second place in my Hall of Shame must go to another holder of an important public office: the Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond. He has announced that he is stepping down, but he as eschewed this opportunity to show any kind of statesmanship. He has accused the Westminster political leaders of backsliding on their promise to devolve more powers to Scotland. This is a very tendentious reading of a very proper argument between the Conservative and Labour leaders over English devolution and the wider UK constitution. Neither have suggested that Scots devolution should be delayed – there is just a concern that these wider issues might delay things. During the campaign Mr Salmond had suggested that if the Scots had voted for independence, then the English political leaders would accept the result with good grace, and enter negotiations with a spirit of peace and light. If that’s what he expects of them, he should apply that standard to his own conduct. It is right an proper that politicians from other parts of the UK should ask how extra Scots devolution affects them. And, indeed, Scottish political leaders should take an active interest in how the UK constitution as a whole works. Scotland is a fully participating member of the UK, and not some foreign power. The First Minister should show some concern that over-hasty constitutional change will affect Scottish interests, and should be demanding a seat at the table – and not acting as if all that mattered was a few extra powers for his government. But, of course, he has no interest in a stable UK constitution, and just wants to exploit the situation to keep discontent amongst Scottish voters bubbling away.

Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond are by some distance the worst culprits. They have responsible public offices and yet are acting like immature student politicians. My next entrant in the Hall of Shame is Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader. He wants to make mischief by stoking up discontent and resentment in England over the role of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament. After a highly divisive referendum, responsible politicians should be promoting reconciliation, and not stoking up resentment. But to his credit Mr Farage is at least advocating the correct way forward, unlike Messrs Cameron and Salmond, which is a UK-wide constitutional convention to promote a measure of agreement on the the shape of the constitution.

To his credit, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, is also promoting a constitutional convention, and one with a wide enough scope to tackle broader issues, like the House of Lords. But he needs to overcome a huge legacy of cynicism when it comes to Labour’s record on constitutional reform. In this parliament Mr Miliband talked the talk on reform of the electoral system and the House of Lords, but behind the scenes he has sabotaged both initiatives based on short-term politics. Voters may well feel that he has no more interest in promoting a fair constitutional settlement for the UK than Vladimir Putin has in promoting peace and reconciliation in Ukraine. To bridge this gap of trust he needs to give a clearer picture of the reforms Labour want, and to go along with shorter term initiatives to deal with the question of Scottish MPs. He should call Mr Cameron’s bluff, and not just try to kick the whole issue into the long grass.

But above all Mr Miliband needs to give a clear timetable for his proposed convention, and  promise a referendum on its outcome by a specific date. He must make a promise that would be hard to quietly bury. But instead he wants to change the subject and hope that all this talk of constitutional change will blow over. The Labour Party is intent on pushing ahead with the media plan that accompanies its party conference, evidently planned before its Westminster elite had an inkling that the Scottish referendum might set the political agenda. Therefore he enters the Hall of Shame behind Mr Farage.

And so we come to the last of the main party leaders, Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister. I have been highly critical of his record to date on constitutional matters, which been misjudged and piecemeal. He has now set out his views on the Constitution. And they are very creditable. He makes it clear, as Mr Cameron does not, that dealing with wider constitutional matters should not be tangled with the issue of further Scottish devolution: it should be a parallel track, with reforms not dependent on each other. On the matter of Scottish MPs he sensibly suggests following the McKay report, which the Coalition commissioned earlier in the government, only for it to be kicked into the long grass. He correctly points out that devolution in England means devolution from Westminster – and suggests a bottom up process for achieving this (by giving local councils the right to demand powers). Finally, and greatly to my relief, he agrees with the idea of a constitutional convention – which should secure directly public participation as far as it can – he suggests a citizen’s jury. This points to an credible way forward: allowing progress on the most urgent issues, while not losing sight of the big picture. So putting him in my Hall of Shame at all would be harsh. If he belongs there it is for not being clearer about all this a lot earlier. Alas, his real problem is a lack of political clout, though. The Libs Dems are facing a number of years in the political wilderness, though I firmly believe that they will be back.

The referendum on Scotland was a near-death experience for the UK. It would be becoming for the politicians from Britain’s mainstream parties to come together with a plan for updating Britain’s constitution, and consulting its citizens as it does so. Instead the Tories are being blatantly opportunist and Labour is pretending that nothing has changed. Only the darker forces of British politics, Ukip and the SNP in particular, will benefit from this.

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#indyref – now is the time for more democracy, not political manoeuvres

So Scotland voted No to independence, and by a margin of nearly 11%. That’s a big relief. A Yes vote would have ushered in three or more years of hard negotiation and uncertainty that would have served no very useful purpose. But what next? There are signs that the political elites both sides of the border are on manoeuvres. But I am backing the Electoral Reform Society’s call for a Constitution Convention. There is a link where you can sign up here – though this is confused by a focus on just Wales; I hope they get their act together o this.

The story so far. Though Scotland voted No, this was only after the main Westminster party leaders, and the hero of the No campaign, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, all promised to deliver Scotland further devolution and protect their funding settlement. Some refer to this off as Devo Max – but others say it falls short of this ideal, whereby the Scottish parliament would be responsible for everything but defence and foreign relations. This promise has to be delivered – but it destabilises the constitution of the UK as a whole.

In particular the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said that reforms must take account of English government. By this he means the problem that Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Irish) MPs vote on domestic English matters, while having no equivalent powers for their own regions. The Conservatives spy an opportunity to embarrass the Labour Party, who may depend on Scottish and Welsh MPs to deliver their party programme in England. Many Tory MPs are talking a lot of sense (for example John Redwood in the FT) – and this not something I say lightly. But opportunism is not a solid basis for a robust constitutional settlement. Most thinking is half-baked, because we have not had a proper period of deliberation on the matter.

It is right that MPs are asking about the wider constitutional settlement. But it is wrong to neglect the process of democracy. One of the energising aspects of the Scottish vote was that it involved voters in an important decision. The turnout was very high (85%) by our normal standards – securing a level of political engagement that has been most unusual. Any constitutional settlement for the UK needs to similarly democratic, even if it cannot hope to reach such heights. There needs to be a deliberative process that draws people in, a Constitutional Convention, followed by one or more referendums across all of the UK. The Westminster elite don’t seem to want this; the Edinburgh elite seem no better. They don’t want a process that they can’t control. They want a platform for point scoring, not a process of consensus building.

But these are hard questions, which are not susceptible to quick political fixes. If we don’t opt for a proper deliberative and democratic process we are in danger of lurching from one constitutional crisis to the next.

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UK constitution: Westminster’s elite still doesn’t get it

“Nor do the English seem to want any kind of devolution for themselves”. Thus does this week’s Economist dismiss any chance of far-reaching constitutional reform for England and the UK as a whole. It offers a couple of tepid ideas as “promising” ways forward to relieve the tension. A committee of English MPs to vet legislation in parliament; devolving more powers to city regions in England. An English parliament or giving English regions equivalent powers to those mooted for Scotland, if it votes No, are dismissed as too difficult, in the absence of a serious clamour from the voters. I have every reason to believe that the thinking expressed in this article is typical of Westminster politicians in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. If something doesn’t feature amongst the top issues that voters highlight as concerns to pollsters, it’s not worth worrying about.

This, of course, is exactly the type of short-term thinking that got them into a mess with Scotland – which may very well vote to separate from the UK this week. The politicians checked the opinion polls, and there didn’t seem to be too much to worry about. They did not have the imagination to see that the separatists would cash in on the national disillusionment with politics. They cannot understand that the current national mood gives politics an inherent instability that the normal polling will not help them with. As the public yearns for leadership, all they get is followership.

It reminds me of those doomed companies, who once ruled their world, and who thought that product development was a matter of following market research. Nokia, Blackberry or  Kodak, for example (there are plenty of non high tech examples – but it is difficult even to recall their names now). Like these doomed businesses Westminster politicians (and their many hangers on) do not want to do anything that might upset their existing ecosystem too much. Or to put the business parallel in better perspective, if Apple had followed market research, it would never have invented the iPod or the iPhone. Or IBM had to pull its existing business apart in order to survive and prosper as the world changed. Unfortunately the professionalization of politics does not make politicians immune from the same sort of progressive entombment that overcomes big businesses from time to time. There are times when it pays to be visionary and move ahead of public opinion.

Britain is lurching from one constitutional crisis to another. If it isn’t Scotland leaving the Union, it will be the UK leaving the EU. Quite possibly it will be both. The Westminster machine is quite likely to get bogged down in years of negotiation to unpick highly complex constitutional, financial and trading arrangements, which will advance solutions to the substantive problems of the economy, public services and national security not at all. By avoiding proper constitutional reform because voters don’t mention it to pollsters, they may in fact find their lives dominated by constitutional problems as a result of referendums conceded too easily.

Britain needs a new constitutional settlement to distribute political power to its most appropriate level. This means more than devolution. The word conjures the picture of a superior power throwing scraps to the lower orders. We should think of  power residing with the people, and delegated upwards to the most appropriate level – and not devolved downwards. When a US city wants to build a metro system, it just goes ahead and does it, subject only to its power to raise taxes, fees and loans. If a British city tries, it has to grovel to several central government departments for permission, with the all-powerful Treasury liable to squash the whole thing with a shrug. Westminster is prepared to tweak this system a bit, but not to change the balance of power fundamentally. When they do offer concessions for devolution, these are so feeble that they fail to command popular support.

It is time to stop the sleepwalking, and for our leaders to wake up and see what is happening to our beloved country. The English may not be agitating for constitutional reform, but if they don’t get it the country will progressively come apart.

 

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As Scotland decides, the recriminations in Westminster begin

I make no apologies for the third post in a week on Scotland’s referendum next week. A political story this big is rare. This time I want to consider Westminster’s reaction to the episode. There is, of course, shock. The story has departed from its script. And with that shock comes recrimination. This sort of reaction is only human, of course – but the reactions miss the point. Britain, with its unwritten constitution, is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of sleepwalking disaster.

The most extreme reaction comes from John Major, who was Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, at a time when the move towards devolution in Scotland developed unstoppable momentum. He is basically saying “told you so”. He said that the whole devolution idea was a mistake, as he said at the time, and it is ending just as he forecast. Well, he is right that simply devolving power to Scotland (and Wales and eventually Northern Ireland) without considering the impact on the wider United Kingdom constitution was asking for trouble. But the resentment felt by the Scots over remote rule from Westminster was overwhelming. Something had to be done in the name of democracy. Besides, devolution seems to have been a success, for Scotland at least. Outside London and the South East Scotland is the most successful region in the UK. This kind of success is about a lot more than public subsidy. No doubt the oil industry has helped, but Scotland has seen the sort of economic dynamism that is sadly lacking in other regions of the country.

But Mr Major’s is a lonely voice. Many more are saying that it was foolish of David Cameron, and the Scottish Secretary of the time Michael Moore, not to agree to Alex Salmond’s wish for a three-way referendum, with “Devo-max” as a third option. But almost nobody outside the SNP thought that a three way referendum was a good idea at the time. I personally could not get my head around it. Referendums are a blunt instrument, not suited to complex questions. The whole thing looked like a sly manoeuvre on the part of the SNP to get more devolved powers, from which to launch a future bid to independence. If they had wanted Devo-max rather than full independence, they should have negotiated that explicitly.

A third line of recrimination, and the loudest, is against the No campaign. It is accused of being lacklustre, pessimistic and negative. It focused too much on the practical problems of separation. This is true. But negative campaigning is the Westminster way. Our politicians, advised by sophisticated professionals, find negative messages more useful than positive ones when it comes to campaigning for votes. They have two basic types of strategy: one is to rally the core vote, and the other is to swing marginal voters. Nothing rallies the core vote better than distrust of the other side. And swing voters are often cautious types who make up their mind on small things. This was certainly the view of the No campaign, which went for the second strategy, sensibly given the likely high turnout. Their polling showed that it was worries about the practicalities that was bothering the swing voters – so it addressed its energies to them. Such negative tactics worked triumphantly well in the referendum on the Alternative Vote in 2011; the No vote campaign was simply doing things the Westminster way. But that left the feeling that the argument for union was hollow at its core – something that besets Westminster’s other campaigns.

Of course what the critics are unwilling to do is look at the wider picture, and recognise the vulnerabilities of the British system of government. Our highly centralised ways are bound to cause disaffection at the periphery. Devolving spending powers faster than taxation powers is not a stable solution to this: it just sets up a tension between the central government and the devolved one. And asymmetric devolution, favouring some areas over others, creates further tensions – tending to focus the tension in some areas rather than across the country.

There is a tried and tested method for containing and managing such tensions, that almost every other democracy uses. That is a written constitution, which defines the powers clearly at each level of government, and sets out clear ways of how the balance of these powers can be changed. The constitution usually has its roots in a process of consensus building at an important, nation-defining moment, giving it moral authority.

But Westminster dislikes written constitutions. It loves the flexibility of Britain’s looser arrangements, whereby Parliament adopts the powers of a Renaissance monarch, bolstered by a sort democratic myth in place of the divine right of kings. And indeed such flexibility has its advantages. But it has vulnerabilities too. The constitution becomes a plaything of ordinary short-term politics; small changes are made that create further tensions that require more short-term changes. Or some constitutional problems are deemed too difficult, and not addressed, allowing very destructive tensions to build. Devolution to Scotland is a case of the former. Devolution within England is a case of the latter. The country sleepwalks into constitutional disasters. Scottish independence is one such potential disaster; departure from the European Union is another.

It requires some kind of national shock to give momentum to comprehensive constitutional change. The referendum in Scotland, whatever the result, is a big enough shock to set such a movement in motion. Time for a Constitutional Convention.

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As Scotland debates, what about England?

The referendum in Scotland is the most interesting thing to hit British politics for a long time. Last night the unionist side wheeled in former Prime Minster Gordon Brown. Mr Brown vindicated my judgement of him last week as being a cut above our current, mediocre political leaders. But how is this drama playing down here in England? After all the outcome involves us too.

The first point is that we are bit late on the game. The Scots have been arguing about the matter intensely for many months. The English, taking their cue from their politicians and media, have largely treated the matter as a foregone conclusion for the union. Only now is the terrible truth dawning. That lack of debate has left thinking very underdeveloped. But I have detected some new trends, at least in the rather non-typical, liberal circles that I inhabit.

Firstly there is envy. People in Scotland are having a real debate and vote on something that clearly matters. If they vote Yes it will make a real difference to the ruling political elite. Usually all that seems to be at stake is the recycling of the same group of usual suspects. Scottish people are talking about the country they want to be. It’s no wonder people are registering to vote and a high turnout is expected. We aren’t getting that here. And the thought of giving that elite, not just the politicians but the media pack, civil servants and lobbyists that cling to them, a bloody nose is distinctly tempting. It becomes rather less tempting when you think that it empowers an Edinburgh political elite, who, to say the least, do not look a trustworthy bunch. But that’s another matter.

The next thing is a common hope. Surely, after a Yes vote, or the near-death experience of a narrow No vote, a shake-up will follow in England? This referendum could be good for all of us. But that will only be true if a grassroots movement, from outside the Westminster elite, demands it. That is possible, though I see no sign of it yet. That movement needs something to ask for – some sort of constitutional change – but I see no evidence of the English developing enthusiasm for that. Without a grassroots movement, Westminster will simply drop back into its usual complacency.

A further response is a rather depressing one. Without the Scottish MPs the House of Commons will be weighted much more towards the Conservatives. There is a much greater chance of a referendum on Britain’s future in the EU. For many this is just the sort of constitutional change that will shake things up – even though its outcome will be to concentrate more power amongst the Westminster elite, rather than take them down a peg. The odds of the country leaving the EU will surely rise. Actually we should be a little careful here. The environment after a Scottish Yes vote will be so different that we cannot make predictions about how political attitudes will shift. The Conservatives may not find it so easy to win in the rump UK.

But what if Scotland stays in the union? The Westminster leaders are already promising the country a greater level devolution on our behalf. But they are silent about how this will affect the rest of us in England. That is no doubt because they are hoping people won’t care enough create much of a fuss. But it leaves us with the English Question. This is referred in Westminster pompously as the “West Lothian Question”, after the very pompous former MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell. This is no doubt their way of trying to minimise its significance and I refuse to accept this nomenclature.

The English Question is this. If Westminster has devolved powers to Scotland, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, it means that Scottish MPs can vote on a whole range of important questions of English policy, without English MPs being able to influence the same issues in Scotland (or Wales or Northern Ireland). It is a very awkward conundrum for Westminster types, because it is difficult to deal with without undermining their own power. Their typical reaction, when it is posed, it to mutter something about it being very difficult, and then to change the subject.

How might the English question be solved? There are three lines of attack The first is to somehow stop non-English MPs from voting on English matters. This is invariably the way Westminster politicians think of solving it. But it gets very messy. How do you, precisely, differentiate between English and British affairs without an explicitly federal constitution? What if the British PM does not command a majority in England? The second appraoch is to devolve powers to local governments in England. But, to be anything like equivalent to the Scots or Welsh devolution, there would need to be some kind of regional level of government. This only exists for London, though other metropolitan areas are inching towards such structures. The regions defined for European elections and statistical purposes have no resonance with public identity and are not fit for this purpose.

The third approach it to set up a separate English parliament, and English government, leaving a federal government to govern the residual issues of the UK itself. To me this looks the most promising way forward. But it raises many questions.

But the most important point for now is that there is no consensus in England about the right way forward, and the issues have not been aired enough. The next step, surely, is to convene a constitutional convention to develop proposals, which can then be put to the whole country in a further referendum or referendums. This convention could be convened either at the English level, or for the whole of the UK. The latter, of course, is the only way of dealing adequately with how a federal level of government could work, and what to do with such institutions as the House of Lords. But the big requirement is political momentum – and it may be easier to get this at the English level, and to deal with the wider consequences later. After all this whole process was set in motion by a Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1990s.

It is, of course, unutterably depressing that our political leaders, including the Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg, who should know better, are not calling for such a convention. But we English should be demanding it.

 

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Why neoliberals will be voting Yes to Scottish separation

Scotland votes for independence or not from the rest of the UK in just ten days time. Until now the complacent Westminster establishment, politicians and media alike, hasn’t taken the debate seriously. In the last week more opinions polls have been commissioned for the Clacton by election than on the referendum question – one reason that it is hard to tell how opinion is shifting. But the Yes campaign now seems to have the wind in its sails, and Westminster has to take the issue seriously. They are completely unready. Westminster types understand why a Scots breakaway is bad for them, but are struggling to understand why it should be bad for the Scots. Or to show that Westminster complacency has been dented by anything more substantive than temporary panic. The latest idea is to promise Scotland more devolution within the UK if it votes No; but the idea of a constitutional convention for all of the UK still seems to be off limits.

And yet there is muddle on the Yes side too. Independence supporters are making real headway with the argument that separation is the best way to preserve the Scots’ social democratic heritage. Scottish people have tended to be more left leaning than the English, and treasure such institutions as the NHS and social security. But this is under threat from “neoliberals” in Westminster, who want to shrink the state and run Scotland more like Texas. A Yes vote means No to the neoliberals.

At first sight this line of argument looks plausible. Most neutrals think that separation would be financially neutral; the extra social security transfers that Scotland gets compared to England will be made up for by extra oil revenues. This being so, an independent Scotland should have little difficulty in keeping the current level of state generosity going. And anyway, look at Sweden, Denmark or Norway, notable for very generous social security, in spite of being of similar size to Scotland.

All this follows the popularity of deciding political questions on “facts”. But there are two problems with factual analysis. First factual analysis is backward looking, when political decisions must be based on the future; second is that our usual factual analysis is based on aggregates and averages – concealing important fluctuations and details within. Both issues affect any analysis of Scotland’s future prospects.

The first point is that bigger ships make for a smoother ride. Look at northern Europe’s smaller nations, from Ireland in the west (or we could include Iceland) to Finland in the east. Their economic history of the last 40 years has been marked by deep economic crises, striking deeper than anything that the UK has experienced (Denmark may be an exception, admittedly) – even as they might experience headier booms. This rougher ride makes generous provision of state services more difficult to manage over the long term. During periods of crisis governments find it difficult to borrow and they are forced to make deep cuts.

But the Scandinavian countries have achieved a generous welfare state, haven’t they? Yes, but at the cost of much higher levels of tax. According to the Heritage Foundation, the UK tax take in 2012 was 39% of income; in Finland and Norway it was nearly 44%, in Sweden nearly 46%, and in Denmark it was 49%. Funnily enough Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond’s main idea for economic growth is to reduce taxes, modelling his policies on Ireland (2012 tax take nearly 31% and a weak welfare system to match). Danish welfare based on Irish taxes doesn’t add up.

But can’t Scotland just follow the Danes and Swedes and ratchet up taxes? Ignoring the economic issues with this (which these states have managed to overcome), the political tide in Scandinavia is rightwards. It seems that the higher taxes were acceptable to homogenous, inward-looking  societies where people were less worried about freeloaders – but that the pressures of a modern economy undermine that. Surely Scotland will find it impossible to recreate the conditions of a past Scandinavia;  it will be politically hard to raise taxes.

And meanwhile Scotland faces the same demographic challenges of an aging population, and rising healthcare costs, as the rest of the developed world with the added challenge of having to reallocate jobs, infrastructure and taxes as its oil resources are depleted.

Scotland faces a much more bracing climate as an independent country than within the UK. This is not a bad thing in itself, of course. It will help the Scots break out of a victim culture, where too often problems are blamed on the English. But the political movement that will most welcome this state of affairs is that despised breed: neoliberals. Independence would give them a shot in the arm. Scotland’s cherished social democracy depends on being part of a larger system of taxes and transfers that absorbs shocks more easily, and makes financing on world markets easier. Big states are more sustainable in big countries.

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