Mon 8th Sept: leading economists produce factfile on how the UK benefits system is failing Scotland
Jim Cuthbert is an economist and statistician who was formerly Scottish Office Chief Statistician. Margaret Cuthbert is also an economist and statistician who among other things lectured in econometrics at Glasgow University. They have just sent over a fact file on the labour market and social security in Scotland which, they say, shows how the UK benefits system has been failing Scotland for a long time. Do check it out, if you're interested.
8th Sept, 11:00am On Devo Max
As the British State has gone into meltdown, it's started begging the Scots to vote no with promises of some kind of devo max.
I wrote in my recent series/e-book on reasons to support Scottish independence about why devo-max isn't what it's cracked up to be. But here's a few things:
these are promises made by desperate people in the last days of a campaign. If it's a no vote, they won't be desperate, and it won't be the last days of the campaign.
Even if the current leaders are honest, can you really be sure that they will have their jobs in a years time? And will their successors stick to their word? Certainly, Boris has made it clear he wouldn't, and lots in the Labour party won't be at all keen on the idea.
There are likely to be some serious down sides to devo-max. It creates a group of MPs voting on policies even fewer of which impact on their constituents. You can be sure that some English MPs, from all sides of the house, will start complaining about this, and Scotland will be expected to give something up – maybe fewer MPs? Who knows.
There's an important point Peter McColl makes: there is a world of difference between more power and more powers. Holyrood was set up by the Labour party at Westminster in the assumption that Scottish Labour would run it, so it was set up to succeed. It's entirely possible to give more powers, but in a sort of messy kind of a way which makes it very hard to exercise them effectively – to set Holyrood up to fail.
For example, if you devolve income tax and so exclude that portion of spending from the Barnett formula, but you don't devolve borrowing powers, then it becomes very hard to cope with a recession. Westminster would borrow to replace the income tax loss, but Holyrood wouldn't be able to, and wouldn't get that portion of income, as it has been excluded.
Of course, it's possible to design a Parliament with more powers within the UK that would work. But the question is, do we trust Westminster to do that? Or is there a risk they'd rather see it struggle, to pour water on the case for a yes vote? Ultimately, it's up to them.
The SNP proposed having a second option on the ballot. Cameron refused him. If we had had it there, with a definition of what it meant, then it might just have been something good. As it is, I'm not at all sure it is.
The logical conclusion of devo-max would be Scotland deciding everything for itself but foreign policy and border controls – whether or not to send our troops into imperialist adventures, whether or not to get rid of trident, whether to end Westminster's brutal migration policies which are undermining Scotland's economy. I don't see why we'd go for that.
This is all clearly in breach of purdah rules, which ban governments from making announcements in the run up to an election (and this referendum). They had agreed in the Edinburgh agreement not to do this. But hey, they British State never plays by the rules. Or sticks to its agreements. Wait, what was that I was saying about whether we could trust them to stick to their word or not?
The basic point, I suppose, is that an actual federal Britain would be one thing, but an a-symmetric devo-max in one part of a UK otherwise largely run from Westminster is messy as hell. It would need a lot of thinking through if you wanted to make it work, and I'm not at all convinced that you could, or that the current government would even want to allow it to succeed.
8th Sept, 8:00am: some background
Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales came to Scotland last week. Walking round Edinburgh, she said, you could tell that something very special was happening – something she had only experienced once before: the feeling that she had sensed when visiting Prague, quarter of a century ago, right after the fall of the Berlin wall.
She's right. It's not at all clear that Scotland will vote yes in the referendum this month – though the polls have swung significantly in that direction. What is clear is that something utterly extraordinary is taking place.
You could hear it in the excitement of the Edinburgh cabbie “I'd never been to a political meeting before. I've been to three recently. I loved all of them”. Before I get out, he turns to me and says, with a hint of thrill in his voice: “We're being invited to run our own country... it's very exciting.”
Sat in an Edinburgh cafe, every conversation around me was about the independence referendum. The waiter was worried about the implications for EU membership. The woman he was serving explained that she was voting yes because Westminster is making the poverty of the children she works with worse. Another woman chimed in that she was voting yes because she's fed up with Westminster's wars - “I think we could have stopped Holyrood from taking us into Iraq”.
This is remarkable not because it's abnormal, but because it's ubiquitous. In the pub the night before, the conversations on every table were about the referendum – how an independent country might manage its foreign policy, what it would mean for jobs, what it would mean for housing. Walk down the street outside, and you are rarely out of sight of a “yes” poster in the window of a tenement flat: more people might vote no, but few will do it with little enthusiasm, and you rarely see their signs.
At the bus stop up the road from the cafe, though, I did see an elderly woman with a “no” badge on. This is no coincidence. The latest polls confirm a trend which has been clear for a while: the majority of under 60s now support Scottish independence. If it's a no, it will be the pensioners who have swung it, putting the UK on life support rather than saving it.
It's not clear what the result of the referendum will be. What is clear is that, over the last two years, in the course of the most informed and intense political conversation in a country anyone I know has come across since the wall fell, a huge number of people have been convinced to vote yes. These people are not the nationalists. Polls at the start of the campaign were clear. There were around 20% on either side who would vote either way come what may. 20% of the country are clear Scottish nationalists, 20% are British nationalists. Each identifies with one or the other as their sole nation and believes that it should be their state too, irrespective of anything else.
Of course, that doesn't mean that they are chauvinistic nationalists. The best way to understand this is to realise that the SNP is probably the most popular party among the Scots-Asian community and it was they who provided Holyrood with its first non-white MSP and minister.
But these genuine Scottish nationalists were never enough to swing the vote for yes any more than the genuine British nationalists were enough to guarantee a no. Everyone else was persuadable. And, at the outset, a significant majority just assumed they'd vote for the status quo, with the yes vote starting out with perhaps 35%. Over the course of the debate, though, four separate things have happened, and it's important to understand each of these in order to properly understand what's going on on Scotland.
First, the radicals backed the yes campaign. Greens, the various socialist parties, the vast majority of the artistic community and most the staff of the various campaigning NGOs (though the organisations they work for have usually maintained a cautious neutrality) have all swung behind yes. The latter isn't surprising. People who work every day with both the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament see that whilst the former is no more perfect than an average Northern European legislature, the latter has one of the least democratic set-ups of any Western state, and as a result has been more captured by global corporate power, turning Britain into the most unequal country in Europe.
Whilst the Scottish Green Party and most of Scotland's socialist parties have long backed independence, their voters didn't always concur. Now, it seems, that both in their own right and through the Radical Independence Campaign (the biggest alignment of the Scottish left in my lifetime), the Common Weal project, National Collective (artists for independence), CND (who are handing out 'how to disarm a nuclear bomb' manuals: 'tools: one pencil'), they have largely enthused their own supporters of the case for independence not as an end in itself, but as a path away from the prison of Westminster politics and towards possible better futures.
There is perhaps 15% of the population in Scotland who lean towards these sorts of radical politics, and whose votes have swung between Greens, the Scottish Socialists, Labour and the SNP over the years, depending on the election. These people coming on board didn't just boost the yes vote. It also brought an army of activists, adding a new flavour to the campaign – it forced the SNP to tack to the left, and it meant the footsoldiers were now not just those who made dead-end “Scotland's a nation, nations should be independent” arguments, but those who had made up their mind because of broader concerns for justice, who see independence as the opportunity of a lifetime to build the kind of country that the post-imperial British State, which has delivered the most unequal country in Europe, will never permit. And footsoldiers is the wrong metaphor. Because these people set up the own organisations, designed their own messaging, and changed the campaign absolutely.
These two groups are the coalition which has, largely, made up the yes campaign for two years, though the simplification excludes a huge number of other stories which run in parallel. This coalition of voters isn't, though, quite sufficient to deliver victory. And so the result this month will rest on another two groups. The first is Labour voters.
There are significant swaths of the Scottish electorate who will always back the Labour party, and the vast majority of them have told pollsters for years that, like their party, they are against independence. In the last few weeks, it is this demographic which has started to shift – started to swing towards voting yes. The portion now seems to be as much as 1/3 of this group of previously loyal unionist voters. If that figure holds, and I expect it will, it will take the yes campaign very close to their winning margin.
But it is the fourth group whose actions will decide the day. This is the demographic dubbed by Gerry Hassan as the “missing million” - the excluded working class who have been so alienated by politics that they haven't voted in years, people on housing schemes where political parties stopped knocking on the doors years ago, young people who have never been registered to vote, never mind turning up on the day. In a country of 5 million, the fact that this group is perhaps a fifth of the population tells you all you need to know about the shocking inequality in one of the richest nations on earth.
Opinion polls are absolutely clear that the less you have invested in the system, the more likely you are to support it. In other words, that if the missing million show up, then it will not be the voters for any one party who decide Scotland's fate. It will be those who haven't voted for any party for years.
All across the country, activists, particularly from the Radical Independence Campaign have been standing outside job centres and touring the colleges in deprived areas and have registered thousands upon thousands of people, many of whom will never have seen a ballot box in their life. I bumped into a friend who had under his arm a pile of 101 forms that Radical Independence activists had just got filled out by 16 and 17 year olds at a local college in a less well-off area of Edinburgh. He said “they just assumed we were yes campaigners – of course they were voting yes”. The night before the deadline for registering to vote City council offices across the country stayed open till midnight to allow queues of people to line up and fill out the forms so that their voices could be heard.
The reaction from the no campaign to this mass political engagement is dismissive “people with mattresses in their garden do not win elections”, one Better Together adviser said to the Daily Telegraph a few days ago. Apart from being an offensive stereotype of working class people, it demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding. This isn't an election. It is a referendum on an existential issue. People who have for too long been alienated by politics may well not bother to show up to chose which neoliberal party attacks them next. That doesn't mean that they won't vote on the 18th of September. And if the missing million does show up, then it'll be game over for the UK.
It's ten days to the referendum. I'll be running a rolling blog here, where I'll try to capture something of the feeling, and any quick thoughts on what's going on from me and anyone else. I hope you enjoy it.