Thursday, 14 August 2014

#indyref: The cost of Trident and the sad capitulation of Scottish CND

Tomorrow the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) is due to publish a paper analysing the future of the UK's Trident nuclear deterrent. In it, it is expected to claim that the true cost of relocating the base at Faslane to an alternative site in England or Wales would be a fraction of the previously suggested "eye-wateringly high" £30 billion figure provided by an MOD spokesperson in 2013.

RUSI suggests that the provision of a new base would add between £2.5 and £3.5 billion to existing costs. It also suggests that in the event of a Yes vote, negotiations between the Scottish and rUK governments would be likely to result in an agreement for Scotland to continue to host the nuclear deterrent until such time as rUK had completed its replacement base.

Readers with long memories might recall that this likely outcome is what I described in a blog post a year ago, in which I argued that "Vote Yes to disarm Trident" was not only a dishonest campaign, but also the opposite of what would likely happen.

For a long-time supporter of nuclear disarmament like myself, the separatist position adopted by Scottish CND in 2012 has long been both a disappointment and evidence of a self-defeating loss of focus. Instead of continuing its long and admirable fight for disarmament, in 2012 Scottish CND became a campaign for a nuclear-free Scotland, no longer caring about the existence of nuclear weapons, merely their location.

Scottish CND relied heavily on the MOD's "eye-wateringly high" cost of relocation to argue that delivering a nuclear-free Scotland by voting Yes would perforce result in unilateral nuclear disarmament by the rUK. The RUSI analysis holes this argument below the waterline.

It's not too late for Scottish CND to rescue its reputation. It can, and should, reverse its policy on independence and acknowledge that we need to retain our political influence over the UK's nuclear deterrent, not wash our hands of it and walk away.

Trident renewal would be a mistake. If, like me, you want to retain your democratic influence over the UK government to try to stop this mistake from happening, I urge you to vote No on 18th September.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Is the Electoral Commission working for #indyref?

The Electoral Commission (EC) is responsible for ensuring that September's independence referendum is conducted fairly, and that participants adhere to the rules on funding and conduct as set out in the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013. Penalties for breaking these rules are harsh - individuals can be imprisoned for a significant period if convicted of some of the offences defined.

But there is a fundamental problem with prevention. Assessment of whether rules have been broken is largely post-hoc. Little or no action is taken during the campaign. There is no apparent prevention activity; merely the threat that after the vote everything will be checked and if things don't add up you'll need a good lawyer. Is such deterrence enough? Is it working?

For normal elections, this is arguably a workable model. The participants are political parties who generally have existed for a long time and plan to exist well into the future. Reputational risk is serious and genuinely feared, and most parties have developed robust internal systems to prevent contraventions. Individuals standing for election have a powerful disincentive to breaking the rules - they could have their electoral victory taken from them. The EC has little need to police during a campaign; it can merely tot everything up afterwards and mete out any justice required.

But in this independence referendum, things seem to me to be very different. The key participants, Yes Scotland and Better Together, have both been set up specifically for this event, and will almost certainly cease to exist shortly after. Many of the other registered participants - Wings Over Scotland, Vote No Borders and so on - are of a similarly disposable nature. Only the political parties have reputational risk, and it's clear that parties' existing systems are rolling into action as usual.

Individuals within the "disposable" campaigns will remain culpable, of course; but we need to look carefully at how that culpability might play out. Nobody here is in the position of an individual standing for election. And critically nobody is risking having any victory taken off them personally if they have done a bit of creative accounting. And if there is the risk of jail time - well, there are certainly participants in this debate who would thoroughly welcome martyrdom for their cause, and who could muster plenty of loud voices to paint any conviction as such.

Because here's the rub. If one or two of the campaign groups were discovered, post-September, to have mis-reported a bit of funding here, or co-ordinated where they shouldn't have there, the chance of that resulting in a re-run of the referendum are vanishingly small. There would be massive resistance on all sides to a re-run - for quite justifiable reasons. It would require evidence of major fraud for it to be even contemplated. Far more likely is that individuals would be given their punishments but the result would stand.

And so the issue of prevention is far more critical for this referendum than it is for a normal election. And yet there is very little evidence that the Electoral Commission is even slightly interested in it. They appear to be running this as a business-as-usual electoral campaign.

Does anyone care?

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Ed is on the bus

I have a few minutes to spare before heading out to speak to voters today, so I thought I'd jot down a few words about yesterday's visit from Ed Miliband, and his question and answer session at Newtongrange.

It was great to get the chance to talk to Ed about how the referendum campaign is going, as we travelled from Edinburgh to Midlothian with Anas Sarwar on Labour's referendum battle bus. He was clearly well-briefed, but keen to hear our impressions and concerns. As ever when I've spoken to him, he is far removed from the media caricature of wonkish awkwardness. He's smart, insightful and takes a long view.

We arrived with a lot of time to spare, and as Ed was doing media interviews and meet-and-greets, it was good to catch up with friends from across the Lothians Labour movement. Newtongrange is a fantastic resource, and I realise it must have been a long time since I was last there - lots of new facilities and improvements. Well worth a visit.

It's a striking setting for a talk, with light streaming in through massive windows, beyond which the preserved mine workings stand as a reminder of the industrial heritage this area has lost. Anas opened proceedings with a talk no less powerful for its familiarity, reminding us that the great achievements of the Labour movement have been the result of working together across the UK.

My online pal Margaret Curran stood up next to introduce the wonderful Davie Hamilton, and the affection in the room for him was palpable - here is a man who embodies Labour values and is rooted in the community he represents. No wonder the people of Midlothian don't want to vote Yes to lose his voice in our UK parliament. Both Margaret and Davie reminded us that Labour is in good heart and good voice in this campaign. We are united around a clear message, and it's a message the people of Scotland appreciate.

And then Ed stood up and, after speaking briefly about Davie, the campaign and the plans for 2015, opened the floor to questions. And this is where he shone. Everyone who raised their hand got a chance to speak, and we covered a wide range of areas from Trident to redistribution of wealth, to local devolution, plans for business growth and employment, and the sheer breadth of opportunity we have following a No vote to change Scotland for the better within the strength of the UK.

As we gradually left, there was a feeling from everyone I spoke to that this had been an uplifting, galvanising and positive contribution. Not everyone had expected it to be. But Ed came to listen and understand, and demonstrated to us all that he has the plan and the strength of character to deliver.

I got a lift home on the big red bus, and five minutes after walking in my husband said it had clearly been a good night, given the animated way I was describing it to him. It had. Sometimes this debate can be a hard slog of online fights and endless doorsteps. Sometimes we need a reminder of why we're doing it and who is standing alongside us. Last night gave me that, and looking out over Arthur's Seat at sunset I was very, very glad I went.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

A conversation with Yes Scotland about job-creating powers

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The anatomy of an impossible conversation

So, this happened.

Handily, each tweet is numbered, which makes cross-reference easy. So:

  1. No it doesn't. Queer politics seeks to liberate queers from heteronormativity. I agree that women are indeed allowed to object to anything they want. Everyone is.
  2. Since the hypothesis in 1 is false, this conclusion is false. That's not to say there aren't people trying to gloss over sexism and misogyny. It's just not, generally, the people you try to blame in 1 and not, specifically, the people you blame by implication in 1.
  3. I asked you to stop referring to a female person as 'he'. Whatever she has said to you. Replying that you will continue to do so isn't so much an argument as a playground tantrum.
  4. Every instance of identity denial does damage, just as every instance of sexism and misogyny does damage. If you didn't think you were having an impact you wouldn't say anything.
  5. I didn't tell you what to do. I asserted that your behaviour was damaging, and I asked you to stop.
  6. The validity or otherwise of my opinion is not related to my gender. Thanks for the cartoon. The likeness is uncanny.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Scottish exports

This morning, the Yes campaign tweeted thusly:
I have no issue with their second sentence. I'm not one to make the "too poor, too wee, too stupid" argument. Indeed, it is only ever independence supporters who do.

But the first sentence gave me pause, because £73.6 billion is more than a quarter of total UK exports. I know Scotland punches above its weight as a benefit of the union, but this struck me as unlikely. So I went and found the Scottish Government's figures. Here we are:
"The total value of international exports from Scotland in 2012 (excluding oil and gas) is estimated at £26.0 billion, of which £15.4 billion was from the manufacturing sector and £8.7 billion from the services sector."
(Scottish Government website)
Okay, so what's going on here? Aah:
The total value of exports from Scotland to the rest of UK in 2012 (excluding oil and gas) is estimated at £47.6 billion, of which £25.3 billion was from the services sector and £12.7 billion from the manufacturing sector.
(Scottish Government website)
So the Yes campaign has added these two figures together to reach their £73.6 billion. Well that seems fair, doesn't it? Maybe? Perhaps?

UPDATE: Actually, no it doesn't. As a couple of people have pointed out since I wrote this, there's a well-documented phenomenon in international trade known as the "border effect" which says trade is inhibited by borders for a variety of reasons, and a pair of regions within a country tends to trade 10 to 20 times as much as an otherwise identical pair of regions in two different countries. So not only is this figure unreliable, there are also good reasons to think it will fall dramatically simply because a border is created.  You can read more here.

Let's have a look at where the data comes from first. It's derived from the Global Connections Survey (GCS), an annual exercise which asks companies to classify their own trade. Around 5,000 companies with operations in Scotland are sampled, and the government says around 2,000 respond, "including nil responses". So, fewer than 2,000 data points then, but we don't know by how much. They are asked to fill in a form which has precisely one question tracking Scotland versus rest of UK sales, and the fourth most common complaint by companies is that they can't separate out their "rest of UK trade" from their "Scottish trade". [page 8]

One can appreciate their difficulty. If the Tomatin distillery company (try their 30-year-old, it's a cracker) was estimating the percentage of its whisky sold into the rest of the UK, how would it classify its sales to Asda (head office Leeds)? How does Tunnocks divvy up its deliveries to Morrisons? What does a company supplying call centre services to Sky write down in the percentage box? Moreover, what motivation have they to take the time and effort to make this accurate? What's the easiest way of filling out the form?

Is this level of evidence a good basis on which to decide the future of our country? Does it make any sense whatsoever to pretend that companies doing business entirely within the UK, with goods often crossing the Scottish border more than once, are somehow involved in "export"? Do these companies even think of themselves as "exporters" as they operate in their home market? Does the "Rest of UK" figure have any meaning at all?

To be fair, the GCS does deliver a bit more detail. It tells us [page 10] that the largest industry sector by far in the "Rest of UK exports" is financial services, accounting for nearly £10 billion - more than 20% of the total. Indeed, according to Scottish Financial Enterprise that's 90% of the Scottish financial services industry's customers.

Unfortunately here's where the wheels really start to fall off.

The only reason many Scotland-based financial services companies can successfully sell into the rest of the UK at all, is that both supplier and customer are in the same country. This would of course stop being the case if Scotland became independent. What we're actually adding up here is the value of financial services business that Scotland stands to lose should we vote to separate from the UK.

ICAS has said that proposed transitional arrangements to resolve cross-border pension problems are "wholly insufficient"; that EU rules preclude regulatory sharing meaning that separate systems and therefore separate markets are an inevitable result of independence; and that the White Paper's assertion of a shared workplace pension protection fund is pretty much pie in the sky.

It's fair to say that classifying as an "export" the supply of a service that could not actually be supplied across a national border is a very considerable stretching of the truth.

I'm not an economist, and I'm open to the likelihood that I might have mis-stepped in this layman's analysis, but it seems to me that explicitly basing a call for a Yes vote on a set of figures which are at best a hurried guess - and at worst a dishonest representation of the potential for Scottish exports to the rest of UK should independence come - is pretty slippery.

And another thought creeps inexorably around my head. Most people aren't going to look this closely at the things the Yes campaign says. When it says a Yes vote will end child poverty, for example, a good number of people are going to take it at its word. And when someone like me takes issue with such assertions, I will be dismissed as a scaremongering tribalist/careerist/BritNat/whatever.

So perhaps this blog is just another straw in the wind. Perhaps the relentless battering of those expressing doubts over independence will sideline these questions just as it has sidelined others. Perhaps the key Yes argument - that everything will be fine just because we want it to be - will win out in the end.

It's a hell of a basis for dividing our country in two.

Friday, 6 June 2014

A doorstep tale

I knocked on a door the other day, with a pile of Better Together leaflets in my hand and a badge on my lapel. It was a sunny morning. A man answered the door. He looked to be in his sixties or seventies, and he was bare-chested. "Sorry for disturbing you" I said, thinking he was in the middle of getting dressed; then I saw the sunglasses perched on his head and realised he'd been sunbathing.

He looked at me, smiled, and said "I've been waiting for one of you lot to come round". Experience suggests that this isn't always the precursor to a friendly chat.

"I'm SNP." Here we go, I thought. "Aye, I've voted for them the last few times. But see this independence? I think that Salmond has overreached. I'm against it. And I'll tell you why."

"When we fought the 1914-1918 war, and when we fought the 1939-1945 war, we didn't do it as Scotland, and we didn't do it as England, or Wales, or Northern Ireland. We did it together, as Britain. And that's how we won. You ask any of the old yins, they'll tell you. And that's what I've been waiting to tell one of you. 'Better Together' is spot on. It's spot on. We are."

"And let me tell you something else. It's wise to stick together. Wise. Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England. You see? W-I-S-E. You can have that, son. Use that."

He smiled again. "So, aye, that's what I wanted to say. And I've said it. Best of luck, son. I'm voting no."