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Peers and Process

Like – I suspect – most people, I don’t often tune into the live video feed from the House of Lords. I watch debates in the House of Commons regularly but I usually rely on political analysis for what’s going on in the HoL. Let’s face it, only people paid to do so can keep up with everything that’s going on in our political system at any one time and, even then, the results are often as clear as mud. However, like many others interested in the progress of the Welfare Reform Bill, I tuned into the HoL yesterday to discover whether peers would simply roll over after their previous amendments to the bill were rejected out of hand at the beginning of the month. Short answer: they didn’t.

While they only pushed one amendment to a vote, they pressed many concessions out of Lord Freud, the Welfare Reform Minister. More than that, they were militant in their attitude. I thought it was worth sharing with the wider public some of the highlights of yesterday and why I feel they’re important.

Lord Fowler – “We would have a great deal more confidence in the parliamentary process if everything in the other place was not guillotined and timetabled. The trouble is that so much comes here that is half digested, and some of it has never been considered at all. If we are to have consideration, that should be it.”

That’s quite a damning analysis of the way the House of Commons deals with matters at their end. A constant criticism of the Coalition seems to be that policies are ill-conceived and ultimately unworkable. They often reek of being cobbled together by parties trying to achieve different things (which, of course, they allegedly are) and climb-downs are not unheard of (eg. the forestry sell-off). The fact that a peer is pointing out shabby policy-making to the HoL should be a matter of grave concern. If we are to have faith in the government then surely we need to know they’ve done their homework. It’s not about necessarily getting it right first time around; it’s simply about our representatives doing their best to ensure any policy is as watertight as it should be.

Lord Peston – “I start from the position that when your Lordships pass an amendment, it is for the Commons to consider it reasonably and make up its own mind. I am coming up to the 25th anniversary of my being here and my experience is overwhelmingly that that is what happens. It happens for one very good reason-namely, courtesy. For most amendments, once is enough. For rather more important amendments, the Commons may come back with a reasoned argument and we may decide that we need to argue it through a second time. Overwhelmingly, I take the view that for virtually everything, except matters that would subvert our constitution, twice is absolutely enough. In all cases, I expect a reasoned, thoughtful reply from the other place. I hope that is not an oxymoron. When I was told what was happening over the amendments that we are currently debating, at first I just did not remotely believe that the Commons would behave in such a way. I regarded it as an insult to your Lordships’ House that the Commons had behaved in that way. The Leader of the House did his best somehow to persuade us that there was no other way. I sat here listening and thought, “How do I feel about this?”. I felt and feel as though I was being bullied. Those of us who have some experience of bullies know that there is only one way to deal with them-to fight back.”

The basis of this seems reasonable. Shouldn’t the HoC debate – in detail – any amendment the HoL has put forward? We know this didn’t happen with the Welfare Reform Bill but could it become a regular occurrence? However, whichever side you’re on in the welfare debate, you can’t ignore the fact that peers accusing MPs of bullying them is pretty strong stuff. Just to take a purely aesthetic view, it doesn’t look good: when one thinks of the HoL there is the impression of age along with notions of privilege that may spring to mind. A group of younger people bullying older people to get their way doesn’t inspire confidence in me.

Finally, I just want to show a particular exchange from the debate without making comment on it. (By the way, I know there were plenty of interesting items later in the debate but I’ve deliberately stuck to the beginning because much of that was about process.)

Lord Freud – “My Lords, many specific points have been made and I shall try to deal with them. We have debated this issue a lot and perhaps I may gently remind the noble Lord, Lord Peston, that we actually voted both ways on very similar issues. I recall that we had a plus two and a minus 16 on this issue-I think it was this issue. When we talk about the message coming from the Lords to the Commons, there were a number of votes in this area.”

Lord Peston – “Is the noble Lord saying that we are being unreasonable for expecting some reasonable arguments from the other place?”

Lord Freud – “Gosh, that is a good question. I had better hold my counsel on that.”

Did you watch any of the House of Lords debate yesterday? Do you have any concerns about the tussles between MPs and peers?

After the Love Has Gone

On this the day when people traditionally express their undying devotion to those that they either love, wished they had loved or given half a chance, would like to love – and sometimes all three – it has been somewhat amusing in recent days to see how certain people no longer feel the love for those organisations and institutions central to many of their and our lives, over many years.

First up is The Sun, which many of us myself included, would hesitate to call a newspaper even though in its heyday it could claim well over four million readers, or for the purists among us, for people with too little time to read properly. Former Political Editor, Trevor Kavanagh, took to the airwaves yesterday to give vent to the feelings of anger and frustration among the paper’s staff following the arrest of five senior journalists under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906, aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office. In a BBC Radio Five Live interview he said, “the mood on the Sun was “despondent”, and there was “a feeling of being under siege” which doubtless raised an eyebrow or two among those whose reputations The Sun has trashed in the past.

Certainly fingers are being pointed at members of the powerful Management Standards committee (MSC) who are co-operating fully with the police investigation lest it be seen as obstructing the course of justice, among them Will Lewis, who as Editor of The Daily Telegraph broke the expenses scandal in 2009. It is with a sense of irony that Kavanagh complained about dawn raids and other tactics used by the police which he regarded as treating those arrested as though they were part of an organised crime gang. Given what has emerged over recent months regarding phone hacking, payments to police officers and others, that particular sobriquet may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, although there is still some way to go before the police investigation is complete.

Rupert Murdoch is due it town later this week for what was supposed to be a routine visit. Given the seriousness of what has befallen his most important UK title and the threat of an investigation by US authorities under the Corrupt Practices Act, speculation will intensify as to whether or not it suffers the same fate at the News of the World. When Rebekah Brooks made that ill-fated comment to the parliamentary select committee about paying police officers for information, no-one then could have predicted the can of worms which would open up afterwards with Leveson, three police investigations and more select committee hearings each of which has chipped away at the facade of invincibility News International and its titles thought it had cocooned itself in.

No story about lost or unrequited love would be complete without the ongoing crisis affecting the Euro with the Greek people once again taking to the streets to protest and the austerity measures imposed by the EU – Germany and France – in order to secure yet another bail out. Today came news that Moody’s ratings agency put the UK on “negative outlook” amid fears over weaker growth prospects and potential shocks from the eurozone crisis thereby increasing the chance of Britain being stripped of its triple-A status. Given that retention of this status is central to the Coalition Government’s deficit reduction strategy, Chancellor George Osborne, re-iterated his view that the austerity programme was the right one for the country and the warning from Moody’s as the reality check needed to face down the debt crisis. The Euro was the creation of bureaucrats and politicians who saw this as an integral part of the plan for political and economic union despite the disparity between rich northern european countries and poorer southern and eastern ones, the latter of which, had only in recent memory been under Soviet influence.

For many within the Eurozone with its stringent budget deficit rules and increasing austerity-inducing measures, one wonders if the Greeks will decide that maybe they might be better of defaulting after all and leaving the Euro? If they do, how long before Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy follow suit? Will the Germans eventually get fed up with playing banker to the weaker European economies deciding that perhaps like the Tory Eurosceptics, totally free markets should really be the arbiter of economic prosperity after all?

For those interested in governance and democratic accountability these are questions which will eventually need to be answered by those to whom we entrust decision-making responsibilities.

We at 2020UK are among those seeking such answers. Join in the debate and help us establish a platform where democratic accountability ensures co-operation replaces confrontation in our political, social and economic life.

Michael Cronogue

Democratic deficiency?

There is a disconnect between the people and their governments in a number of European countries as I write this blog.

The headline in The Times reads, “Rioters set Athens ablaze as MPs vote to save euro”. The Guardian’s take is rather different, “Greece approves austerity cut to secure bailout”. The Independent also opts for the popular reaction, “Greek MP’s warned of disaster as Athens erupts in violence”.

Meanwhile, closer to home we have a government pushing through two contentious bills whilst saying it is listening but acting as if it is deaf. These two are, of course, the Welfare Reform Bill and the Health and Social Care Bill.

There is a link between the events in Greece and these two bills. The politicians in Europe brought in the Euro without having a popular mandate so to do. The coalition has no mandate for either of these bills. Indeed, the coalition has no mandate – full stop. It has an agreement (which it calls a mandate) forged in the white heat of those heady days following the election but that is all.

There is a good argument that a coalition should behave like a caretaker government carrying out the business of the day and not getting involved in reform but rather just seeking through good housekeeping to ensure that everything is being done as well as possible within the existing framework.

That is not to suggest that our welfare arrangements and the NHS are not in need of reform – both do but the real question is ‘how?’.

It seems to me that in both cases we have left out the very first and most important step of all: to set the terms of the debate in the light of available resources. Who do we, as a nation, want our welfare system to support and at what level? What do we, as a nation, want from a National Health Service?

Obviously two questions follow immediately. What percentage of the national wealth are we, as a nation, prepared to spend on welfare? What percentage of the national wealth are we, as a nation, prepared to spend on health care?

As far as I can see, none of the questions has been fully explored. Surely major reforms need to be built on foundations stones that have been fully aired and which have the support of those involved (whether as providers of resource through taxes and beneficiaries).

I suspect that the reason these questions have not been asked is that there is no framework in place to ask them. In any event the party political system we have favours not the best that can attract a consensus from the vast majority of us (whose party political loyalties are frail or even non-existent) but anything – good, bad or indifferent – that stands a reasonable chance of winning the next election.

Perhaps we should be trying to answer those questions here, on 2020UK.

* * * * *

During this time of recession, government ministers are fond of the expression ‘difficult decisions’. However, who is making the decisions and are they really that difficult? Essentially it seems that central government reduces the funding available for their departments and, more controversially, local authorities. Then the fun starts. Is this council closing that library or care home because they really cannot make savings in needless paperwork, etc or is it that they want to score a political point over the government? Is this police chief right when he says that all the slack has been taken out of the system and front line police are going to have to be laid off or is the chairman of the police authority right when he says the reverse? The problem is that the system is a very long way from being transparent.

Looking after the welfare of disadvantaged children is hardly a fun subject. Action for Children takes it very seriously. Here is a quote from their site, “The proportion of children who experience neglect in the UK remains at an unacceptably high level; studies suggest that up to 10% of children experience neglect at some point in their lives, and it is still the most common reason for a child to need protection services.”

What I am going to say will sound as though I have no concern for disadvantaged children but that is not true: I hope I have as much compassion as anyone for the child who is truly disadvantaged through no fault of his or her fault. Nevertheless I want to take issue with that quote because this is the sort of thing that muddies the waters and is, in the long term, actually counter-productive.

There are two issues: “up to 10%” is the first. As I write this blog, up to 10% of the UK population is sitting with me in my study. The actual percentage is, of course, minuscule but because it is less than 10% I am being totally truthful in saying it is up to 10%. They explain that they have carried out a review in partnership with Stirling University. Good – that means they have some accurate data. Why not share it?

The second issue is “disadvantaged”. I have had a fairly thorough search of their site and I cannot find what definition of this word they use. This, too, is important. In actual fact not a child is brought up in this country who does not “experience neglect at some point in their lives” if by neglect you simply mean “left to get on with life in a free and unsupervised fashion”. I was brought up during the war and in the very lean years that followed and, as a child, experienced a great deal of neglect – benevolent neglect that enabled me to forge my own personality, follow my own enthusiasms and, very important this, learn a good deal about risk analysis through my own unsupervised stupidity (and I have a few scars as a result). I was one of the incredibly lucky ones.

So why the above? Well, it is all to do with looking at the way we run our affairs with 2020 vision. I am sorry to highlight Action for Children for they are an excellent organisation and the work they do very important and I could have selected any of a host of other examples. Blame random selection for that is what it was. However, ‘spin’ is bad policy even when the end that is being sought is good.

Rodney Willett

Squabbling over the NHS

It seems that everyone is coming out against the Health and Social Care bill. Labour leader Ed Miliband scored a rare victory at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday by sticking with the subject and backing David Cameron in a corner he couldn’t manoeuvre his way out of, even with some planted positive questions from his own benches. Lib Dem activists are pressing for scrapping the bill to be on the agenda of the party’s spring conference and, most damningly, Conservatives are teeming out of the woodwork with their own criticisms of the bill. Tim Montgomerie, the editor of ConservativeHome, wrote a piece for The Guardian today, where he hypothesises about how the bill was born: “The NHS bill emerged during the early days of the coalition. Cameron and Clegg seemed to think the normal laws of politics had been suspended in the weeks following their rose garden romance. Desperate to prove that their alliance was not a lowest common denominator arrangement, they over-reached and the Lansley bill was born.” That’s a fairly incomprehensible reason for developing such a wide-reaching bill, if Montgomerie’s theory is to be believed. Nonetheless, it remains a fact that the public is waking up to the fact that neither party put forward these reforms in their manifestos. The beauty of a coalition government seems to be that they can cobble together policies which no one voted for. Beauty, that is, from the perspective of the politicians.

The claim from Tim Montgomerie that several Cabinet ministers are unhappy with the proposals is another chink in the armour of the Coalition. However, the problem seems to be – as with a great number of things – that our politicians are scrapping about fighting each other in the desert while the castle burns in the distance behind them. Ed Miliband is latching on to an opposition line that he perceives to be a vote-winner and the government is trying to contain the infighting. Meanwhile, the public is sat around scratching their heads and trying to make sense of the information they’re given about the bill.

My personal feelings on the intricacies of the bill are irrelevant. What matters to me is the flagrant disregard of views that contradict the official line, even if they come from within the official bunker. Here are a few things I would like to see happen before this bill can progress further:

  • I would like the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley to actually engage with the people who believe the reforms are bad news, including the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives. Instead of doing this, he has simply accused them of political posturing: “Frankly I think the only thing that has changed is they want to have a go at the government because of the trade union aspect…They’re having a go at us about this and it’s purely, in that sense, a political operation on the part of the RCN.” Unhelpful, really, in the context of the bill. If Lansley isn’t willing to discuss opinions – publicly, as well – then why should anybody have faith in him?
  • I would like to see an end to the squabbling. However, I don’t want dissenting voices to be silenced: I would much prefer for them to bring their voices out into public view and join in the debate properly instead of whispering by the back door.
  • I would like Ed Miliband and Labour to clearly set out how they would make efficiency savings from the NHS in coming years, given the opportunity, and what they see as the future of the NHS.
  • I would like the public to be given a no-holds-barred account of how far proposals have progressed and whether they can actually be stopped (as both sides argue different things). I would also appreciate an independent analysis of the reforms but I won’t hold my breath.

What does all this amount to? Well, until people – and by ‘people’, I mean more than just Andrew Lansley, David Cameron and Sayeeda Warsi – are completely satisfied about the scope and extent of the bill, I think pausing the passage of it would be only right.

Lucy Brown

Looking The Part

by Joanne Cannon  

“I always thought he was a bit odd. I said to you, Margaret didn’t I? I said, he’s a little bit odd, he is.”

The woman was being interviewed on the local television. She wore slippers and a cardigan covered in cat hair, and stood on the street next to her friend Margaret, who just stared silently into the camera and grinned.

A man had been named as a suspect in the case of a missing child and the police had announced they were taking him in for questioning. An ominous statement which was guaranteed to whelk out anyone who had ever been within spitting distance of him, and many who clearly  hadn’t. The media were having no difficulty in finding residents in the village where the man lived, who were willing to donate their opinion to a television camera.

And not one of them tried to understand.

I watched the story unfold on a giant, flat screen in the doctors’ mess. Images of the man’s house, front garden, back garden and old school photographs were on a constant loop, interspersed with words of wisdom from anyone unwise enough to speak. For once, the mess was silent, as we all drank in the scandal.

“He’s very quiet,” said the man from the local Spa shop, “doesn’t join in with village life, you know, keeps himself to himself.” He gave a conspiratorial nod to the lens, as though keeping yourself to yourself was suddenly a heinous crime. “And you could always spot him when he was out and about,” he added, “because of the hair.”

The screen flashed up an image of the man. Thin, grey wisps fell below his shoulders and were mixed with traces of cigarette yellow. He wore milk bottle glasses and his mouth yawned open to reveal a set of unhappy, quarrelling teeth.

“Well, that’s it then.” The house officer who sat next to me continued to spoon foiled curry into his mouth as he spoke, “he’s definitely guilty.”

“Is he?” I said, “why?”

“Well, it stands to reason. He looks the part, doesn’t he?”

The man was eventually released without charge. But it proved that the general public (and not just the media) are willing to hang a man, based on nothing but his haircut and the fact that he’s Not Quite Like Us. Most towns have at least one resident who is Not Quite Like Us and you might even find one on every street if you look carefully enough. These are the people we don’t care to understand. The unbelongers. Very often, they slip through life unnoticed (albeit ridiculed), but sometimes their behaviour affords them a one way ticket to a psychiatric unit and, when this happens, they are usually given the rather vague and uncomfortable diagnosis of a Personality Disorder. These are the lost souls, the wanderers. If life is a dance floor, they are always on the edge, trying to copy what everyone else is doing but never quite getting it right and constantly bumping into the trestle tables.

And the only problem about being diagnosed with a Personality Disorder, is that it’s really rather tricky to cure someone of their own personality.

Life, like medicine, likes to wrap people up into measured, tidy packages.

Their hair is too long.

Their voice is too loud.

They just look the part.

These are the people we change aisles for in Sainsbury’s. A shadowed population who exist in a society which chooses not to acknowledge, but to walk around them. We use them as a barometer, to comfort ourselves that our own lives are neat and normal and worthwhile. That we look that part. That we fit in.

But the only problem with barometers, is that when the pressure changes, so do they.

And one day, we might miss our footing. We may find that life begins to walk around us and our value is weighed by the eyes of strangers, as we stand and watch from the edge of a dance floor.

And we will wonder how we came to be there.

And perhaps only then we will try to understand.

Joanna Cannon

Is This Democratic Behaviour?

As you may have noticed, 2020UK is very interested in democracy, how it works and – perhaps most importantly – how it is manipulated. Earlier, I came across a fascinating post from The Misssy M Misssives blog entitled “Worried of Aberdeen”. I would encourage you to go across and read the whole thing (complete with pictures of the proposed development) but Gillian Martin has kindly given her permission for 2020UK to quote a few lines.

Briefly, here’s what it’s all about. A park in Aberdeen’s city centre has been the subject of debate for several years. Some want to redevelop the site and some want it to be left alone. Citizens are being offered the chance to vote for or against the development but Martin explains why it’s not that clear-cut: “Next month we get to vote on whether the proposed design for the park goes ahead. A referendum is being held. Yes or No.  Simple as that. The problem is that the last time a consultation with the public was held on this issue, of those that voted 55% said no. But this result was then ignored and the plans kept going anyway. Hmmm, that’s not democracy.”

I feel she’s right. It may not be a landslide victory but 55% is a rejection nonetheless. Yet the council obstinately pushed ahead. The referendum is due to be held on 1st March but will a rejection force the council to abandon their plans? Martin is sceptical and I can’t say I blame her. You see, Martin includes a nice screencap from the proposed developer expressing their delight at being awarded the contract. Rather premature, congratulating themselves prior to the referendum. The announcement was quickly removed but, due to the power of the Internet, it cannot be wiped from memory so easily.

All this seems rather biased in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote, to say the least. There are a few more examples of Aberdeen City Council’s bias on Gillian Martin’s blog and, again, I would urge you to have a read of it. It’s interesting not only to residents of Aberdeen but to every citizen who feels their council is listening to themselves and not to the public. If you have any other examples of this kind of manipulation, 2020UK would love to hear from you.

2020UK is committed to exploring how democracy can be ‘fixed’ and we’d appreciate your opinions on this particular story. Are the actions of the council justifiable? Presumably, they think they know best. Would you expect a ‘No’ vote to be respected in the March referendum?

Once again, this is Martin’s blog post on the issue and you can follow her on Twitter @MisssyM.

Lucy Brown

The Best of Times or The Worst of Times?

Not to pick a title for today’s blog without reference to the bi-centenary of one of English literature’s greatest authors, was too big a temptation to pass up I’m afraid. As the literary world celebrates the 200th birthday of the author, journalist and passionate advocate of social reform, I thought that this would be a good time to ponder where we as a country find ourselves now, and what lessons we can possibly draw as we progress further into a new century.

Certainly many of the problems from Charles Dickens’ time are still with us; the gap between rich and poor is as wide as ever; educational attainment is still predicated on attending the right kind of school along with entry into what we still call “the professions”; teenage pregnancies are still a common feature particularly in poorer working class areas along with shortages of suitable social housing; the consequences of poor diet and unhealthy lifestyles fuelled by excess alcohol in particular, continue to take their toll, with the supermarkets and bargain booze outlets replacing the gin houses of the Dickens era.

We may have got rid of the original Victorian built slums in the decades since the second world war, yet the high-rise blocks from the sixties which promised a revolution in housing, are gradually being torn down as planners belatedly realise that what creates communities are streets of houses where neighbours get to know each other, and where people put down roots and gain support networks.

The cap on housing benefits may yet force large numbers of families to move to cheaper areas, while governments of all persuasions seem in thrall to those landlords who charge extortionate rents safe in the knowledge that for many cash-strapped local authorities, there is little in the way of viable alternatives. How many MPs are themselves landlords thanks to generous tax-payer funded expenses, before the Daily Telegraph exposed the latent corruption beneath the whole system?

We may no longer imprison people for getting into debt, but finding oneself in hock to a loan shark – legal or otherwise – is in itself a form of servitude, along with those who find themselves struggling to pay off their debts to those other legalised practitioners of modern extortion, the banks and credit card companies.

In Dickens’ time London played host to the Great Exhibition of 1851, celebrating the best of the-then empire. Some hundred and fifty years later another great exhibition will descend on London in the form of the Olympic Games which like its football world cup cousin, is an excuse for global corporations to indulge themselves in an orgy of greed and self-publicity, and where audiences now measured in billions, are targeted by both sound and visual media each seeking their cut from the cake.

Of course there have been many advances which have benefited the world since Charles Dickens first took up his quill pen. Yet despite these gains, our political systems and their adherents seem as remote as ever from the people they are supposed to serve as they were before universal suffrage was introduced. Our electoral system is a case in point. Witness the bitter personal campaigns that took place during the AV referendum.

2020UK was set up to challenge these issues and to look afresh at a system of governance where co-operation replaces confrontation.

The fact that many of the social problems so graphically described in Charles Dickens’ novels are still with us today reminds us that in many ways, these are still  the best of times and still the worst of times.

Michael Cronogue

Mayors and Scottish independence.

What are the basic requirements of society? It has been said that the prime responsibility of the government is to ensure the defence of the realm. Indeed, you could say that in thousand years after the Romans ceased to rule here that was always the major preoccupation of our rulers – that and, all too often, wresting power from whoever had it and ensuring they hung on to it. It was an era when might was, usually, right.

That began to change in 1217 when Magna Carta was signed and now we heap a multitude of responsibilities onto the shoulders of the government including some that, if the truth be known, they are wrong to accept as the control of some events are beyond their ability.

Nevertheless, we have come a long way along the road towards democracy even if there is still some way to go. To quote Winston Churchill, ‛It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.’ He also said, ‛The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.’

He may have had a point there: the average voter is interested only in what effects him or her – and has little interest in taking the trouble to find out all the facts before forming an opinion. This is not an argument against democracy, far from it. It is an argument for seeing further democratic evolution: perhaps by putting decision making closer to the people and by making issues ‛people sized’.

Is this a good time to rethink what we expect of our government, to ensure that what we place in their care are the things that matter most and the things over which they can exert real control? Throughout the history of politics, the need for those in charge to collect taxes has dominated everything. It was soon discovered that if the people have no wealth there is nothing to tax and that meant protecting the people and their ability to create wealth.

As we have evolved culturally since becoming identifiably human, we have moved on from caring for people for purely mercenary reasons and have become more concerned for the underdog and especially the weak and needy. Despite the costs most of us wish to live in a state where the welfare of those with needs carries a high priority whilst a huge wealth gap between the rich and the poor is considered unacceptable .

Since meeting those costs depends on the supply of wealth, I will start there.

In my view, capitalism is the worst way to produce wealth except all the others that have been tried. Banker bashing and trying to differentiate between good businesses and bad businesses may be great sport and a good way to blow off steam. However, these are the people at the top of the wealth producing tree and they are essential for all parts of that tree. Many of those starting out on new businesses rely on these giants as customers, suppliers and providers of financial support (as shareholders or lenders). Already we are seeing an exodus of business and business leaders who are saying they can no longer do business in the UK. We may not like some of these but we do need them. If we aim to reduce the gap between rich and poor (which I really do hope is high on our agenda) we should be turning our attention to improving the earning prospects of the poor and not by ruining the wealthy.

A society where there is no creation of wealth just does not have the wherewithal to provide the needs of the people. If anyone knows of an alternative wealth producer to capitalism we would be delighted to hear from then but we would ask that whatever is proposed is backed up with hard evidence that suggests there is reason to believe it would work.

Assuming the nation is producing wealth, what should the government do with that wealth? How much of that wealth should the government take as tax?

This is a massive question and it is the intention of 2020UK to be exploring just some aspects of it over the coming months.

Here are a few basic thoughts to start the ball rolling.

Is it central government’s job to control (directly or indirectly) the spending of all our taxes? Should the power be devolved to more local authorities or to other institutions accountable to the people but separate from government?

Would we be better off if our form of governance were closer to home?

One such system is the local mayor. Here is what Daniel Finklestein wrote about mayors in his Times column last Wednesday (reproduced with his permission).

“Mayors are going to help to transform the nature of politics. They are going to break up local party machines, throwing up individuals who will run on their own merit. Although party affiliation will still matter a great deal in most places, candidates will have a direct relationship with voters and there will be a premium on independence. 

“Mayors will experiment and compete with each other. There will also be more open competition within parties, as candidates attempt to win the nomination. Mayors will be judged on their executive ability, on their success in getting their cities to thrive economically and socially. And cities all over Britain will gain champions, identifiable and controversial champions. 

“I want to see all this happen because I think Britain is stuck halfway through a constitutional revolution that it needs to complete. And electing mayors is one step nearer to completion.”

Time for a 2020UK debate on mayors? Please watch this space. Incidentally, it is good to see someone who believes that a constitutional revolution is needed.

Another way of bringing power closer to the people is to devolve power from the centre. Some in Scotland are now hoping to take matters further and declare independence. The passion expressed in our blog last Thursday by Nikki Hall, a member of SNP who has high hopes for her country, is both moving and instructive. Throughout the UK we need people to feel passionate – and people have a habit of feeling passionate about their own neck of the woods. We also need them to be well informed – and people have a habit of knowing what is what in their own neck of the woods.

I find myself agreeing with so much of what Nikki says and yet I cannot believe that the break up of the union would benefit Scotland. At the same time I cannot see that giving Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the counties or regions of England far more control over their own taxes and spending can result in anything other than good. In short, what is wrong with Devo-Max so long as it is offered to all? As far as I can see this option has been taken out of the debate without any thought.

So change is in the air and most agree that change is needed. Will the changes we see be the result of slow and reasoned deliberation in which the people have a real say or simple politically motivated knee-jerk reactions by those close to the centre of power? Sad to say, I suspect that the proposal to offer more communities the opportunity to decide whether or not to elect a mayor falls into the latter category. Had it been thought through perhaps more of us might have had the opportunity to be involved in that process.

Rodney Willett

Scottish independence

by guest blogger Nikki Hall – SNP member 

I read William Bain’s article here on 2020UK with some flicker of hope…. it wasn’t littered with the typical unionist responses to Scottish independence; “better together”, “can’t manage alone”, “nobody wants it” and seemed to be a piece of some substance.

William Bain is right. Alex Salmond does have questions to answer. The best thing about the next 2 years and 8 months or so is that questions are going to be asked. They are being asked now. We are questioning everything.

Mainly whether we can afford it.

The burden of taking on our share of the UK’s deficit is a common argument used to scare voters off the notion of independence, and whilst no-one in Scotland is under any illusion that we would take our fair share of that, as Stephen Noon points out, what about the assets? And surely we’d be due a portfolio of RBS shares along with our share of the bail out? For what they’re worth…

The crux of Mr Bain’s argument though, the issue of an Independent Scotland’s EU status, was raised at the SNP Roadshow I attended on 29th January, presented by Angus Robertson MP. Although it would be a unique situation, there’s enough of a precedent in Greenland to argue that William Bain’s assumption is just wrong. It’s not that easy to leave the EU. Greenland was granted home rule from Denmark in 1979 and remained a member of the EU until it negotiated its exit in 1986. Admittedly it was not a fully independent nation until 2009, but self governance didn’t see Greenland expelled, so there’s no reason to believe it would happen to Scotland. Angus Robertson also said we would retain all our treaty obligations…. we can’t walk away from the EU, or anything else we’ve signed up to as part of the UK, even if we wanted to.

The rest of Mr Bain’s argument was pretty much based on Scotland having to re-apply to the EU for membership, being forced into the Euro and having to meet the strict financial criteria for membership. All moot points.

However, in the wake of Jim Wallace, Advocate General for Scotland, blustering on about the need to “debate these things”… in a televised debate, it’s good to read something with a bit of thought to it, because as it stands I’m wondering when, if ever, someone will come up with a strong, reasonably worded case for remaining in the union.

I am a socialist. I believe in the Keynesian Economic Model, I believe in a strong Welfare State funded through taxation, I believe in a liveable minimum wage and I reject Managerialism and the needs of the market over the needs of the people. Pretty much.

I am also a card carrying member of the Scottish Nationalist Party.

And what William Bain and his ilk fail to understand, publicly at least, is that it’s perfectly reasonable to be both.

It is even possible to be a True Blue Scottish Conservative at heart and vote SNP. I personally know people who fit that profile quite comfortably.

And it stands to reason that many whose political leanings are a tad more centrist or green, similarly find supporting the SNP not at all conflicting.

I’ve never understood why voters in Scotland have been satisfied with having no say in what shade governs at Westminster. When we all vote Labour in a UK election and Labour win, we pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves for being so influential. When we all vote Labour in a UK election (let’s face it we’re pretty predictable) and the Conservatives win, we whine that we have a government we didn’t vote for.

We’d be as well not voting at all.

Whether we can afford independence or not is not an issue for me. Scotland needs to grow up and realise it NEVER gets the government it votes for.

The only way that’s going to happen is in an independent Scotland. The only future for right of centre politics in Scotland is in an Independent Scotland. The only future for a truly socialist Scottish Labour party is in an Independent Scotland.

When Murdo Fraser MSP proposed disbanding the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party and forming a new centre-right party to fight elections in Scotland you’ve got to wonder if even he gets it.

The 2014 Referendum isn’t about the SNP vs “The Rest”, no matter how much “The Rest” fight to force that discourse. Support for and opposition to Scottish independence can be found right across the political and social spectrum, and is neither predicated or negated by support for Alex Salmond or the SNP.

But everyone is looking to Alex Salmond for the answers.

And we will get them, in a nice big document sometime in the run up to the referendum, because if there’s one thing the SNP have been preparing for, this is it.

But give us, the voters, time to ask the questions first eh?

Because it’s our debate. This is a matter for us, the people of Scotland, to argue amongst ourselves. The more Westminster or anyone else whose representation and interests lie outwith Scotland tries to interfere with that, the more likely we are to band together and see you all off. Just for the hell of it.

I don’t want Scotland to vote for independence just for the hell of it.

I want everyone in Scotland to understand what independence means and vote by a huge margin in favour of it.

I’m almost too excited for words at what the future holds for my country.



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