Video: Border Effects

Border Effects: Canada-US Lessons

James E Anderson from HSS Webteam on Vimeo.

James E. Anderson is a Professor of Economics at Boston College. He is a research associate at the distinguished National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States, and serves on the editorial board of the Review of International Economics. Among other topics, his research explores the relationship between trade within and across country borders

The Political Economy of National Borders

Enrico Spolaore from HSS Webteam on Vimeo.

Enrico Spolaore is a Professor of Economics at Tufts University. He is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and editor of a forthcoming book on Culture and Economic Growth. Among other topics, his research explores the economic determinants of country size.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What future for childcare?

Professor Bronwen Cohen, University of Edinburgh

Professor Bronwen Cohen, University of Edinburgh

Professor Bronwen Cohen asks what future for childcare beyond the referendum.

One of the questions not asked in the Referendum debate on the 5th of August was what the result might mean for childcare. A key issue for many families, survey evidence suggests that this is an area where people think independence could help (McAngus 2014). And it might well have formed part of the discussion on how public spending can be maintained as the working age population decreases. So what questions should be asked of the two campaigns?

 All of the political parties in Scotland broadly recognise the importance of what is referred to across the UK as Early Learning and Childcare, and internationally as Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC).  The terminology recognises the many benefits to young children as well as their importance to parents. And there can be little doubt of its importance in reducing levels of child poverty and inequalities in access to services. Families with pre-school children are the largest single group living in poverty and these families are the least likely to be making use of formal services (Cohen 2011).

All parties are signed up to improving access to services. But this is an issue which not only demonstrates their different approaches to public welfare but also illustrates the problems posed for the Unionist parties by the split responsibilities for ECEC at Scottish and UK levels of government. Although the Scottish parliament legislates on the supply of early education and family services, the Westminster parliament is responsible for the tax credits and benefits which have been used to boost ‘demand’ for services, and has also led on a variety of other programmes including  the Treasury initiated  Sure Start programme.

On offer from the SNP, post –independence, is a universal high quality ECEC system for all children from the age of one to when they enter school, through a progressive extension of the entitlement to free early learning and childcare. (Scottish Government 2014)  By the end of the second Parliament this would give three and four year olds and ‘vulnerable’ two year olds access to the same number of hours as primary school children. It is argued that this is only possible through independence, because it requires investing directly in services rather than subsidising demand, with funding ‘following the child’, through the tax and social security system. Its sustainability is linked to its simplified structure and, crucially, tax revenues resulting from increased labour market participation and job creation, as well as benefit savings from an associated reduction in poverty. Following independence, these would accrue to the Scottish and not the UK government.

The argument for these proposals is well supported by international evidence on the advantages of universal integrated ECEC systems and the use of supply–side funding, both in terms of cost effectiveness and ensuring more equal access to services.   (Gambaro et al. 2014; EC 2011; Penn 2009; OECD 2006). And whilst some questions have been raised over detail around the initial costings (SPICe 2014) there can be little doubt that it is a cost effective model able to meet, in an integrated form, the variety of functions expected of ECEC services.  When fully implemented, it would almost certainly considerably diminish current inequalities in access to services.

The questions that might be asked relate to what the White Paper does not contain. Perhaps the most obvious gap is the absence of any mention of school-age childcare and, more generally, the role of schools. Providing pre-school children with access to hours equivalent to primary school highlights one of the problems confronting parents at present – the mismatch between their hours and those of schools.  So it would be good to hear how more effective use can be made of schools in contributing to the care as well as education of both pre-school and school age children. High maternal employment rates in Norway (83-86% of preschool mothers, predominantly fulltime compared with 63% of Scottish mothers over half of whom work part-time) reflect the more extensive hours of their kindergartens and statutory entitlements to school –age as well as pre-school childcare  – usually provided in schools (Cohen and Rønning forthcoming). In other words, the more ambitious the plan, the more likely it is to deliver the economic as well as the social and educational benefits.

To those urging us to vote NO, we need to ask what lessons have been learned from the UK/Scottish split in ECEC responsibilities and whether the proposed additional tax and social security powers would include childcare tax credits and benefits and, over time, enable the transfer of this resource to direct funding of services and for recouping the tax revenues. Without this, the current expensive mixture of demand and supply funding and associated inequalities in access is likely to continue.

Would the adoption of a federal structure by the UK, proposed by the Scottish Liberal Democrats (SLD) (2012) and now adopted nationally, make a difference? Its decentralised approach has much to commend it and Canada’s federal structure has not prevented Quebec from developing a distinctive ECEC system, particularly notable for having reduced inequalities of access through its $5 a day cap on childcare fees, introduced in 1997.  But the SLD proposal  – now adopted nationally – reserves welfare to the UK as a whole. Moreover, the experience of Quebec suggests that federal governments still like to reach out to the people directly through programmes and tax benefits of their own, seeing this as a way of maintaining national identity. (Allen 2012)

This would matter less if the UK system did not involve the current mixture of demand and supply funding, and if there were shared aspirations across the UK for delivering ECEC.  Ironically, the best hope of achieving this might well be through working at EU level – as the Scottish Government is currently doing –in using the 2011 Communication on Early Childhood Education and Care as a basis for addressing key issues such as integration and quality.  The EU played an important role in legislating for maternity and parental leave provisions. The UK has been one of the member states that has discouraged a similar legislative approach to developing entitlements to ECEC services.

So the final question to both campaigns might be: will they support a stronger ECEC framework at EU level?  Where does a more substantial role for EU social policy feature in the discussion over Scotland – and the UK’s – EU membership?

For further reading on the subject, please visit:

Bronwen Cohen is Honorary Professor in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh. This piece is a follow-up on work published by Professor Cohen in August 2003.

Posted in Policy - General | 1 Comment

The Uncelebrated Union

Neil Walker responds to last week’s debate, noting that ‘what  was not said was more interesting and more revealing than what was’. This piece was originally published at the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum.

Last week’s first televised debate of the referendum campaign revealed few surprises of tone or content, even if the outcome disappointed pro-independence hopes of a momentum-building surge in support.  As expected, Alex Salmond concentrated on  the core message  of political self-determination, and the prospect of the new Scotland embracing a model of social and economic solidarity that London is increasingly unable or unwilling to deliver.  With equal predictability, Alistair Darling for  ‘Better Together’ insisted upon the precariousness of the pro-independence position on currency, placing this at the suggestive centre of a wider  narrative contrasting the vulnerability of a fledgling Scottish polity to the  reassuring solidity of the existing British state with its broader institutional shoulders and deeper pockets. It was not, truth be told, a good night for the ‘ vision thing’. Salmond seemed somewhat less energised and less sure-footed than usual in his portrayal of the promised land, perhaps inhibited  by the artificial format of the TV duel and by the strong pre-debate expectations that his quick wits and populist style would win the day hands-down. For his part, Darling, true to form, simply chose not to let his political imagination off the leash. He stuck to a narrow brief, defending the status quo, or at least a soft focus version of it, and concentrating his fire on the supposed gaps  and shortcomings of the ‘Yes’ case.

For Better Together, as has so often been the case over  30 months of campaigning, what  was not said was more interesting and more revealing than what was. One particularly deafening silence, much commented on in the immediate aftermath, surrounded Darling’s refusal, despite many repeated invitations from his opponent,  to offer an explicit endorsement of the proposition  that Scotland could  be successful as an independent country. In an episode that  rapidly descended into Paxmanesque political  pantomime, and which hardly flattered either party, Darling’s discomfort was that of someone torn  between a desire not to offer a succulent soundbite  to the ‘Yes’ campaign  (‘Darling makes case for independence’), and an anxiety not to appear dismissive of the potential of his fellow Scots.

On more than one occasion, Darling referred to Scotland as  ‘part of something larger’. Yet when he did so, he omitted to give that larger entity a name. 

There was, however, another telling silence, less apparent,  quite unremarked in  post-debate commentary, but ultimately of deeper significance. On more than one occasion, Darling referred to Scotland as  ‘part of something larger’. Yet when he did so, he omitted to give that larger entity a name. This might seem trivial. After all, everyone knows where and what he was talking about –   who the ‘we’ are who, in his view, are and ought to remain  Better Together. And so, perhaps, we should read nothing more into his silence than a (reasonable) assumption of the self-evidence of his object of desire. Yet  that would be too simple an explanation. For Darling’s reticence  can also be seen as a mark of  reluctance, even of unease. It  betrays a sense that the state we are in is best  left understated, so to speak; and that it might be to the symbolic disadvantage of the ‘No’ campaign to apply a label to the entity whose preservation  they seek.

 An appreciation of why this is the case takes us to the heart of the question of Scotland’s constitutional future, not just over the vital final weeks of the referendum contest but also in the years to come.

What’s in a name? 

The awkwardness begins with the sheer range of candidate labels. Was Darling talking about – or rather not talking about – Britain, or the United Kingdom, or perhaps ‘The Union’? As Aileen McHarg  reminds us in a recent post, these are not interchangeable terms, and the uncertain movement between them is a symptom of Better Together’s indecision over whether and how to present a holistic case for the defence. The terms  may refer to ( more or less) the same geographical unit, but each speaks in a somewhat different register. Crudely, we may think of Britain as the cultural entity, the UK as the institutional entity, and the Union as the abstract idea – the constitutional key to what these islands hold in sovereign common. Clearly, those different registers – cultural, institutional and constitutional – overlap, and they also closely interact, but they do nevertheless reveal different levels of understanding of our wider political community. And, as we shall see, Better Together is not entirely comfortable operating at any of these three levels.

Take first, Britain. The long decline of Britishness as a dominant national identity from the 19th century high water mark of Protestantism and empire is well-known. As recently as 1970, asked to choose a single nationality as many as 39% of Scots identified as British. By 2013 that figure had fallen to 23%. The significance of this cultural fact  in framing the referendum debate Is often overlooked just because it is nowadays so well established. But it can hardly  be overestimated.  As the Edinburgh Agreement confirms, it is Scotland’s referendum to decide, not Britain’s, and the arguments on both sides – from Better Together every bit as much as the nationalists – always appeal first and foremost, and often enough solely,  to the Scottish rather than to the British national interest in making their case.

Yet that  is not to say that a cultural sense of Britishness is irrelevant to the debate. Only around a quarter of contemporary Scots assert an exclusively Scottish identity, the rest admitting at least to a residual sense of British  identity, and more than one third regularly claiming their British identity to be as strong if not stronger than their Scottish identity.   Migratory patterns further complicate cultural identity. Over 800,000 people born in Scotland live elsewhere in the UK, mostly in England; and according to the Scottish Government’s recently published draft interim constitution, those members of that sizeable  diaspora who presently qualify as British citizens  (i.e., nearly all) would automatically join the vast majority of the  5.3  million Scottish residents  as  citizens of  a newly independent Scotland, including the half million Scottish residents who were born in England.[1] Ties of family, friendship and work link many people across the four nations well beyond this considerable population of internal migrants, and together with shared language and heritage, and a wide array of  cultural institutions from the BBC  to the British Lions, and from the royal family to the Trades Union movement, feed a resiliently self-reinforcing sense of affinity and common sentiment.

So while it is a dominant identity for relatively few, being British remains an integral part of the cultural self-understanding of most participants in the referendum. It follows that even if it is emphatically the Scottish rather than the British national interest that is at stake in this referendum, some attention must be paid to British values,  and  to the value of Britishness,  as part and parcel of any attractive conception of that Scottish national interest.  No-one understands this better than Alex Salmond, and that is why he has been so ready to extol and to endorse  the enduring  virtues of British culture  to audiences both North and South of the border. It is also why he has been at pains to offer reassurance about Scotland’s  post-independence commitment to many aspects of ‘social union’, not least the 400 year old monarchical union.  For Better Together, however, despite such nationalist concessions, this remains  a delicate  subject. Indeed, the generosity of the endorsement of a residual Britishness by Scottish nationalists, in particular by the nationalist leadership, can even serve to highlight Better Together’s  own difficulty in painting a more robust picture and a more confident sense of the place of British culture in Scottish political life, and so further expose the tension between culture and polity in any vision of a continuing British state.

What of the United Kingdom? Surely as we move from the cultural software  to the institutions that  supply the hardware of the modern state the ‘No’ campaign find themselves on firmer ground. For here we are talking about the deeply embedded and closely enmeshed political and economic infrastructure of a 300 year old state; about its common  monetary and fiscal framework and financial institutions, its NHS  and wider system of social welfare, its dense network of common regulatory agencies,  its armed forces, its global diplomatic presence,  and its membership of key international institutions from the EU to the UN Security Council, and from NATO to  the G8 and G20. And certainly, the kernel of the campaign case for the status quo, as underlined by the formidable sweep and detail of the Scotland Analysis papers  of HM Government and by the tendency   of   Better Together spokespersons to disaggregate the case for the UK into its many particular benefits, has been here; in the advantages that accrue from belonging to something tried and tested, bigger and more resourceful, and with a long established international position  and global  reputational  capital.

There is much in all of this, and it may well provide the decisive  platform for a ‘No’ vote on September 18th. Yet  there is an obvious snag here too. For the stress upon results, what is sometimes called ‘output legitimacy’, leaves the ‘No’ side exposed to counterclaim, and also threatens to cast its overall approach in an unflattering light. To begin with, if it is the record of the British state which  supplies the case for the defence, then it is bound to be the entire record, and, of course, there is much both in the UK’s imperial past and in its long post-imperial decline and  repositioning  that can be singled out  for criticism by those who are inclined  to emphasise the downside; and once debate is joined at this level, there can be no copper-bottomed,  position-independent way of demonstrating  that one side’s assessment  of the balance sheet is superior to the other’s.

In addition, a results-based assessment has a necessarily contingent quality. Success depends upon performance and performance depends upon the presence and maintenance  of  favourable    preconditions. On the one hand, this leaves the defenders of the British state vulnerable to arguments that these conditions have been eroded and circumstances have changed; that the UK   as an integrated project  in some sense or other has been ‘broken’ or is on the verge of becoming so, whether because of  declining financial and diplomatic muscle in a world still suffering the shock waves of the financial crisis. or a congealed neo-liberal consensus at the centre, or the prospect of a UKIP-fuelled marginalisation or exit from Europe.  On the other hand, that same preoccupation with successful outputs, and with the conditions of success, also feeds what we might call the tendency towards counterfactual negativism in Better Together’s portrayal of the Yes case. Whether on currency Union, or membership of the EU, or  future defence contracts, the No campaign is drawn by its results-orientation to scrutinise closely the basis of the nationalist boast  that they could achieve equivalent or better outcomes in another possible world.  And while close scrutiny of hypothetical claims is understandable, and perfectly reasonable, it does also help fertilise the view, enthusiastically cultivated by the other side, that the No camp is  motivated  by narrowly  instrumental considerations; that Project Fear  and Mission Balance Sheet are its only and small-minded  answers to the expansively regenerative politics of nationalism.

Which brings us third, and finally, to the idea of  Union. Can this idea – this most abstract rendition of the state we are in –  supply the deep  constitutional code that holds the cultural pieces of Britain together, and which makes the institutional framework of the UK and its attendant benefits more than the sum of its parts? In some respects, the idea of Union offers an unlikely candidate for this task. As Colin Kidd has ably demonstrated,[2] the history of unionism in these islands is not a singular one, but a complex tapestry  of sometimes divergent,  sometimes interfluent themes. In particular, the banal conception of Union and unionism – especially well-known in Scotland and Ireland –  as shorthand for the single, consolidated and  historically both largely centralised and imperially expansive British state, is only one part of the story. The other main version of unionism has been generally less prominent over the modern era,  yet  it is both etymologically persuasive and  more consonant with the everyday meaning of the term. It begins with a much earlier pre-1707  Scottish impulse to address relations with the large English neighbour on the basis of  presumptive equality, continues through various iterations over the centuries of legal Union, and has acquired renewed resonance in very recent times. On this alternative view, unionism is counterposed not to nationalism and to the independence of the component parts, but to an idea of English empire over the territory of the British Isles and beyond. The two  versions of unionism, then, do  have in common the preservation of the British state, but while in the first version the state prevails by denying or disdaining nationalist sympathies, in the second and more progressive version it prospers by accommodating and in significant measure embracing such sympathies.

Arguably, it is the second version of unionism that supplies a more persuasive, if still only partial, reading of recent British constitutional history. Unarguably, it is the second version that must be deepened and amplified if the Union is to prevail in the longer term. The distinctive components of this progressive unionism are  both structural and ethical. In structural terms, the Union offers a very special model of constitutional design, incorporating a rare  idea of constitutional authority. The Union state is understood – at least ideally if not always strictly as a matter of historical record  – as a conditional compact between sub-state national authorities, each of which retains or (in the less idealised version) rescues and regains  some core of constituent power – some claim of national right – to revisit the terms and the very existence of Union.  The Union state, then, emerges and matures through a process  of evolution and according to the shifting balance of constitutional forces, rather the unfolding of a single master project. Equally, its form always remains provisional, open to further development rather than a matter of finality. And its shape is inevitably asymmetrical, reflecting the different composition and aspirations of its national parts – what Michael Keating calls its ‘plurinational’ rather than its ‘multinational’ pedigree[3] – rather than the careful symmetry of the units we find in  classical federalism. Last, and most fundamentally, the Union state, progressively understood,  must  draw a distinction between constituent power and constituted authority – or between (plural) political sovereignty and (singular) legal sovereignty. The coherence of the polity requires  that a particular settlement of legal authority hold firm at any particular time and cannot lightly be overturned, but the need to respect the equality of the national parts also requires – whether or not as part of a formal  constitutional amendment procedure –  that this settlement remain open to revision in a way that allows and respects the renewable  expression of popular sovereignty (normally indicated  through referenda) by these national parts.

The ethical dimension of a progressive unionism is perhaps even more under-articulated, but it has recently been given thoughtful articulation by Gordon Brown.[4]  Brown insists that it is a necessary rather than a contingent feature of the British state, as well as a distinct advantage over an independent Scotland,  that it be a ‘Union of social justice.’ That is to say, there should be and should remain an ‘insurance policy’ between the national parts enabling, through common fiscal instruments, whatever redistribution is necessary to guarantee common standards of welfare across the UK as a whole wherever and whenever resources and risks are otherwise unequally divided. Clearly, this inclusive commitment to a basic threshold of social justice requires some measure of common investment in values such as egalitarianism, community spirit and social responsibility – social democratic standards  that Brown reminds us are, by any historical measure,  as much English as they are Scottish, Welsh or Irish – but it also requires this to be matched by the  deep political tolerance of diversity necessary to give effect to the structural dimension of Union. That is to say, a progressive unionism must find a way of reconciling solidarity with respect for different forms of cultural life and their political expression. And in  so doing it must recognise and manage the following difficulty;  that  each cluster of values is both the condition of and a constraint upon the other. Solidarity is required for a settled  order of political pluralism to prevail, but the more pluralistic – the more diversely accommodating – the polity, the greater the challenge there is  to generate such  solidarity. Equally, without robust recognition of national diversity in today’s Britain, the trust and respect necessary to sustain cross-national solidarity will not be forthcoming, yet  the political arrangements necessary to deliver the solidarity dividend themselves set limits on how far political diversity can be accommodated.

The case for the  Union state as an answer, however complex, to the internal pluralism of the British state is strengthened by it suitability to the wider political environment. The Union  idea may represent a departure from  the constitutional orthodoxy of the modern state, but its more decentred and negotiated understanding of  sovereignty and its provisional and iterative approach to constitutional agreement  reflects and adapts to recent developments in  geopolitical circumstances. For the broader constitutional picture in a globalising age  is not simply of a two-level power system, but of a multipolar pattern. Constitutional  authority  in and for the Union today is in fact balanced precariously not just amongst  London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, but also between these sites and Dublin, Brussels ( EU political institutions), Luxembourg (EU Court of Justice) and Strasbourg ( European Court of Human Rights). Legal  jurisdiction  in this densely interconnected environment, therefore,  comes not in organically compact blocks but  is salami-sliced across a range of political settings. In turn, that multipolar authority system has encouraged a more general  underlying   condition of   ‘constitutional unsettlement’.[5] With so many constitutional sites co-implicated, and with no undisputed ‘authority of  authorities’  to plan or co-ordinate their interaction, the course of constitutional change becomes unpredictable, with the resolution of each arena of negotiation and disputation heavily dependent upon similarly unresolved questions in other arenas. So, as we have seen, uncertainty about Britain’s future in the EU, and to a lesser extent  the ECHR, and similar doubts about an independent Scotland’s European prospects, have become  staples of the referendum debate, just as, reciprocally, the referendum result will significantly affect the stakes and influence constitutional (re)negotiation in all these other areas.

All in all, the idea of the Union state, especially under the  flexible arrangement of the unwritten constitution, seems  a good fit for this fluid scenario. In particular, with its   recognition of the inevitably of power-sharing, and in its emphasis upon the open-ended political treatment  rather than the definitive  legal resolution of diverse constitutional claims, the Union state can speak a language of  relative rather than absolute authority, of shifting rather than final settlement, that is appropriate to our time and place.

The Union’s new vows 

There remains, of course, a gap between such a progressive unionism in theory and the Union in practice. The Union today remains largely uncelebrated, as double-edged  a source of comfort and inspiration for the defenders of the state we are in as are the ideas of Britain and the United Kingdom. In part this is because of the legacy of traditional unionism –  the banal, knee-jerk  version that rejects rather than encourages accommodation of political and cultural nationalism below the state. In part, too, it is because the difficult work of rethinking the Union in a more rounded fashion requires a kind of cross-party engagement and reasoned, inclusive dialogue that has not found an easy place in the referendum campaign. Significant progress has been made. The Scotland Act 2012, negotiated between Westminster and an SNP-led Holyrood, is gradually rolling out more fiscal powers and new fields of competence to the Scottish Parliament, while the three main pro-Union parties have all published plans for further constitutional reform, and have agreed to develop these under a joint platform post-referendum. But much of this activity has been reactive, a second agenda behind the main priority of fighting the referendum in more critical and defensive mode.

Yet if the new progressive unionism outlined  above is to be taken seriously as a long-term solution to Scotland’s constitutional question,  then it must do more. The structural and ethical questions it asks  offer new opportunities to the political imagination, but they also pose significant challenges. More work is needed not just to convince sceptical nationalists that their aspirations can be accommodated, but also to commit effectively  to the procedures of ‘joined up’ constitutional reform the Union needs if it is to integrate concern for the Scottish question and for the sub-state national question more generally, with all the other aspects of the multipolar constitution.

The task of achieving and sustaining a long-term commitment among Unionists to progressive unionism should not be underestimated. Nor should anyone understate the difficulty of selling to a wider audience such a project, whose core message is a rejection of the false clarity of some versions both of nationalism and of traditional unionism, in a manner that is itself sufficiently clear and appealing. One thing is certain, however. If the British/UK/Union state is to succeed in promoting a grown-up and sustainable constitutional model for the 21st century, it has to get used to declaring its own name and aim in public.

Neil Walker is Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at the University of Edinburgh.

[1] See further, N. Barber, ‘After the Vote: The Citizenship Question’; J. Shaw, ‘Citizenship in an Independent Scotland: Legal Status and Political Implications’ CITSEE Working Paper 2013/34.

[2]  Colin Kidd, Union and Unionisms (2008)

[3] Michael Keating Plurinational Democracy; stateless nation in a post-sovereign era (2001)

[4] Gordon Brown, My Scotland, Our Britain (2014)

[5] N. Walker, “Our Constitutional Unsettlement” [2014] Public Law 529-548.

Posted in Constitution | 2 Comments

Should Scotland vote for what is best for Scotland?

Kieran Oberman, University of Edinburgh

Kieran Oberman, University of Edinburgh

Kieran Oberman urges us to think ‘what is best for everyone affected by the referendum, wherever they live?’

The Yes and No camps are busy telling us that Scotland will be made better or worse off as a result of independence.  What they both seem to assume is that “what is best for Scotland?” is the relevant question to ask.  But why?  The referendum will have an impact on people beyond Scotland’s borders.  So isn’t the relevant question to ask, “what is best for everyone affected by the referendum, wherever they live?” Clearly, the outsiders who will be most affected are those living in the rest of the UK.  In the event of a Yes victory, politics within the rest of the UK is set for a shake up.  Currently, Scotland sends 59 MPs to Westminster.   Most are Labour; only one is Conservative.  So Scottish independence is likely to shift UK politics rightwards.  This rightward shift is unlikely to take the form sometimes imagined: endless Tory majorities.  Rather Labour and the Liberal Democrats will themselves shift rightwards in search of the new median voter.

This should be good news if you are on the right.  Scottish right-wing internationalists (if there are such people) have good reason to vote yes.  But for those on the left, it should be deeply concerning.  If the left is correct in thinking that right-wing policies worsen social injustice, then Scottish independence is likely to worsen social injustice in the rest of the UK.  Scottish left-wing internationalists may have reason to vote no even if, as the Yes camp claim, Scotland itself would better off on its own.

There is a global dimension to all this as well.  Scotland, post-independence, will not be a major international actor, but the rest of the UK will retain much of its influence.  A rightward shift in UK politics will mean a rightward shift in the UKs approach to foreigners: expect more hostility towards the EU, more loyalty to the US, even tighter immigration restrictions etc.

Left-wing Yes supporters will argue that an independent Scotland will offer a left-leaning role model for others to follow.  Whether Scotland will really be all that left-leaning is questionable. Surveys of political values reveal that Scotland is not actually that different to the rest of UK.  The problem the Conservatives have in Scotland might be due less to their right-wing policies as their perceived Englishness.  But even if Scotland did offer some kind of Scandinavian-style social democracy, the role-model argument seems far-fetched.  If the rest of the world wanted a Scandinavian role model to inspire it, it already has one: Scandinavia.  Moreover, large countries tend to ignore the affairs of smaller neighbours.  The UK’s ignorance of the politics in the Republic of Ireland is rivalled only by the US’s ignorance of Canada.

Some contend that the referendum will actually have little affect on UK politics.  They point out that Scotland has only been decisive in three British elections in the last fifty years: 1964, 1974 and 2010.   Two points on this.  First, three out of thirteen elections seems significant to me.  That is almost one in four.  Second, one only knows whether Scotland is decisive or not after an election.  Going into an election, party strategists must plan for all possibilities.  Given the possibility that missing Scottish votes will prove decisive in a post-independence election, Labour and Liberal Democrats are likely to play it safe and shift right-wards.  The idea that party strategists will simply ignore the loss of dozens of safe seats and plough on as before is hard to believe.

Now to some, all of these considerations are beside the point because they will reject the internationalist approach from the outset.  For them, the question “what is best for Scotland?” is the pervasive question in the public debate for a good reason: it is the relevant question. The idea that Scottish residents should countenance voting for the sake outsiders, while anticipating harm to Scottish livelihoods, will seem preposterous, even treacherous.  Scotland, like any other country, can legitimately put itself first when deciding its own affairs.

I certainly accept that the internationalist approach goes against current orthodoxy, but I want to question whether that orthodoxy is defensible.  For the question remains: what can justify the view that Scots should show greater concern for other Scots than for outsiders?  Every one is human.  Why worry about some human beings more than others, simply on the grounds of their geographical location?

That question is rarely raised in everyday politics, but it as a question that nationalist political theorists have sought to answer.  One of their most powerful arguments rests on an analogy between nations and families.  People are often entitled to do things for their family members that they need not do for strangers.  If your mother is in hospital, it is okay to visit her; you do not have to visit other patients as well. If you want to read a bedtime story to your child, you can do so without incurring the obligation to read to every child.  Families are often entitled to put their members first.

Perhaps nations are like families.  If the analogy holds, then it would seem permissible for nationals to prioritise fellow nationals.  But does the analogy hold?  One thing that seems important about families is that they are (usually) a site of love and intimacy.  It is arguably part of love and intimacy that it involves prioritisation.  By visiting your mother in hospital, you express your love for your mother.  In reading to your child, you experience intimacy with your child.  No such argument from love and intimacy can be made in the case of nationals.  The vast majority of our fellow nationals are strangers we will never meet.  A person who refuses to award her fellow nationals priority status does not thereby miss out on a loving, intimate relationship.

Anti-nationalists, moreover, have their own analogies.  Clearly there are cases in which it is unjust to award one group of people priority status on the basis of a morally arbitrary characteristic.  Racism, sexism and sectarianism are wrong.  What makes nationalism any different?

The left, which often prides itself on its opposition to arbitrary discrimination, has had an uneasy relationship with nationalism.  This is true as much in Scotland as elsewhere.  Johann Lamont, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has described nationalism as a “virus that has affected so many nations and done so much harm”.  Strong words.  But if nationalism is to be rejected and internationalism embraced, then the Scottish Labour Party, along with everyone else, should be prepared to accept losses for Scotland for the sake of outsiders.

This article has so far suggested that right-wing internationalists have reason to vote yes and left-wing internationalists reason to vote no.  But let me end here by saying a little to redress the balance.  The SNP are promising the removal of British nuclear weapons from the Faslane naval base.  If they deliver it would add pressure on the UK to scrap its weapons altogether.  Whether that possibility lends one reason to vote Yes depends on how one feels about nuclear weapons.

Moreover, once one adopts the internationalist approach, some of the No camp arguments lose their force.  Consider the argument that an independent Scotland would lose out on being part of a country whose influence is disproportionate to its population size.  From an internationalist, and democratic, perspective, that does not seem such a bad thing.  The UK’s disproportionate influence is unfair – a product of colonialism and power politics.  The UK does not deserve its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, for instance, and were the UK to lose it upon a Scottish exit, as some warn, that should be welcomed, especially if it meant a shake up in which poor countries achieved a greater say.

Finally, and most importantly, while the internationalist approach takes seriously the impact of the referendum on the rest of the world, it does not ignore the impact on Scotland.  Since it is in Scotland that the strongest impact will be felt, an internationalist would be willing to vote against the interests of outsiders, as long as the benefits for Scotland are sufficiently great. This article has proposed an internationalist approach to deciding how to vote, but it has not claimed that that internationalist approach yields any easy conclusions.  On the contrary, the internationalist approach complicates matters further by bringing a range of new considerations to light – considerations that are all too often ignored in the public debate.

Posted in Overseas Perspectives | 4 Comments

Event: The Economics of New Borders: Implications for Scotland

The Economics of New Borders: Implications for Scotland
Thursday, 26 June 2014 at 18:00
St. Cecilia’s Hall, Niddry Street, Cowgate, EH1 1NQ

As the Scottish independence referendum approaches, economic questions have come to dominate the public debate on Scotland’s future. Would a new border affect Scotland’s trade with the rest of the UK and, if so, by how much? What new economic policies could an independent Scotland pursue? And how would independence affect Scotland’s per-capita income and prospects for economic growth?

The School of Economics at the University of Edinburgh, together with the Scottish Institute for Research in Economics (SIRE), is pleased to announce that it will host a public panel discussion on the economics of new borders.

The aim of the event is to showcase what methods economists use to evaluate the possible costs and benefits of independence, discuss the experience of other countries and explore the implications for Scotland.

The Panellists

  • James E. Anderson is a Professor of Economics at Boston College. He is a research associate at the distinguished National Bureau of Economic Research, and serves on the editorial board of the Review of International Economics. Among other topics, his research explores the relationship between trade within and across country borders.
  • Enrico Spolaore is a Professor of Economics at Tufts University. He is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and editor of a forthcoming book on Culture and Economic Growth. Among other topics, his research explores the economic determinants of country size.
  • Stephen Farrington is Deputy Director of the Economics Group at HM Treasury, and responsible for the Treasury’s analytical work on the Scotland independence debate. Previously, he served as the head of the economy forecast team at the Office of Budget Responsibility.

The panel will be chaired by Robert Zymek (School of Economics, University of Edinburgh).

Please note participation is free but registration is required due to venue capacity.

To book a space please visit the online registration facility (via Eventbrite):

Venue details:

Posted in Events | 1 Comment

A New Direction for the Conservatives on Devolution?

Alan Convery, University of Edinburgh

Alan Convery, University of Edinburgh

Alan Convery responds to the Strathclyde Report produced by the Scottish Conservatives, an important moment for the party.

For the Scottish Conservatives, the publication of the Strathclyde Commission report on further devolution marks another significant moment in a long journey for the party. Having passed from strident opposition to a Scottish Parliament to the Calman Commission and lines in the sand, they now have their own set of proposals on devolution. This is significant in two main ways: the Scottish Tories appear to have found a path through the competing ideological demands of their Conservatism and Unionism; and for the first time since the 1970s they have something authentically Tory and positive to say about devolution.

Firstly, the Scottish Conservatives have found it extremely difficult to reconcile two facets of their ideology: a belief in the Union and a Conservative belief in fiscal responsibility. Their interpretation of the demands of Unionism in the 1980s and 1990s led them to oppose the creation of a Scottish Parliament. However, when that Parliament came into being, they then found it difficult think about how a Conservative might improve it. In principle, it would be difficult for a Conservative to support an institution that had so little responsibility for the taxes that it spent. It would surely have been better from the outset to try to reform the Parliament in order to move the political debate in Scotland towards the more natural Conservative territory of the proper balance between taxing and spending. However, many Conservatives still continued to view every new power for the Scottish Parliament as a concession to the SNP and a betrayal of the Union. The Conservatives spent many years trapped by this unreformed ‘Unionism of 1995’. This report may mark the point when the Scottish Conservatives finally free themselves from these ideological knots and start to think for themselves again about devolution.

Although the party is now armed (finally) with an ideologically coherent position on devolution, there is still more to be done. Can the party now match this devolution agenda with an authentically Scottish policy agenda? 

Secondly, pushing their position beyond their support for the Calman Commission and the Scotland Act 2012, the Conservatives now have their own unique devolution offer. Although none of what they propose is strikingly original (having been foreshadowed to varying degrees in the other parties’ commissions and in reports from Devo Plus ( and the IPPR (, it is the first time since 1999 that they have deliberated internally and produced their own blueprint. Crucially, the Conservatives have now arguably outflanked Scottish Labour on the issue of more devolution. It will be interesting to see if their thinking has moved on sufficiently to try to take explicit advantage of this position by portraying themselves as the main Unionist party of devolution.

The headline proposal of the report to devolve all income tax fits with the other parties’ reports on further devolution. Indeed, some form of devolution of income tax is the common thread running through all of the proposals. Specifically, the Liberal Democrats also propose that all income tax and air passenger duty should be devolved. The proposals for some welfare devolution also chime with the other parties’ ideas. However, there is one omission that stands out: the report is silent on the issue of the future of the Barnett Formula. Labour propose to retain it; the Liberal Democrats want a reformed system.

Although the party is now armed (finally) with an ideologically coherent position on devolution, there is still more to be done. Can the party now match this devolution agenda with an authentically Scottish policy agenda? If kneejerk Unionism was a 1990s Tory habit that needed to be ditched, then so is recycling English policies for a Scottish context. While most Scottish Tories (and those on the Scottish centre-right) will acknowledge the significance of today’s report, others may feel that it has only taken the party as far as the logical position it really ought to have adopted in 1999.

Posted in Referendum process, campaign and vote | 1 Comment

Who will decide the referendum outcome?

Dr. Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh

Dr. Nicola McEwen, University of Edinburgh

Nicola McEwen reflects on reports that voters of non-Scottish origins will play a decisive role in the referendum vote at The Conversation, noting that the emphasis on country of origin in analysing voting intention is misplaced.

The latest ICM poll made delightful reading for the yes campaign the other day. It showed a split of 52/48 against independence (42/39 once we factor the “don’t knows” back in), suggesting that the yes campaign needed only a two percentage point swing to reach a majority. The once buoyant Better Together campaigners look decidedly more worried these days.

There is still a long way to go before the poll in September, but recent polls increasingly suggest that the result may be close. This would make it easy to conclude that should a particular group of people be more inclined to vote yes or no, it would have a decisive impact on the result.

The point is, we can draw many correlations to illustrate the constitutional preferences of different categories of voters. But to do so would shed little light on understanding why people will vote yes or no.

Last weekend Scotland on Sunday suggested in response to the ICM poll that the decisive group in question could be “the 460,000 people who live in Scotland but were born in England” (or at least those 16 and over who are eligible to vote).

The ICM poll suggested that just 28% of them say they will vote yes compared to 58% who intend to vote no. They contrasted this with those born in Scotland who appear to marginally favour independence by 42% to 40%.

But why focus on country of origin? This seems an entirely arbitrary and potentially provocative demographic feature to pinpoint – one which is of little relevance in a campaign in which issues of ethnicity and even national identity are largely absent.

Demographic pick and mix

We can point to any number of demographic characteristics to suggest that a particular group could swing the result either way, and in numbers which would carry much more weight than the 9% of Scots born in England.

What about the 51% of Scots who are women? The same poll indicated that just 35% of women would vote yes compared to 44% of men. Once you exclude the don’t knows, a majority of men in this poll expressed support for independence, but the female vote would produce a no outcome.

Or should we single out the 1.5 million Scots who are older than 65? They are markedly more opposed to independence than any other age group. Or perhaps the decisive group will be the ABC1 voters, only 35% of whom in the ICM poll said they’d vote yes, compared to the 42% of the working and lower-middle class (53% once we exclude the don’t knows) voters.

Or the power to determine the outcome might be seen to lie in the hands of those in the north east or the south of Scotland, who are notably less enthusiastic in their support of independence than those from the other regions sampled.

The point is, we can draw many correlations to illustrate the constitutional preferences of different categories of voters. But to do so would shed little light on understanding why people will vote yes or no.

Parizeau’s faux pas

When in 1995 the voters of Quebec came within a whisker of voting for independence, then premier Jacques Parizeau infamously placed the blame for the defeat on “l’argent puis des votes ethniques” – money and the ethnic vote. That comment, more than the result itself, led to his immediate resignation from a party that had at that time worked hard to promote itself as an inclusive civic nationalist party.

The Scottish National Party has done even more to champion the cause of civic nationalism. With groups such as New Scots for Independence and Scots Asians for Yes, it has long sought to present Scotland as a multi-cultural nation and independence as a project for everyone resident in Scotland, irrespective of where they were born and bred.

The Independence White Paper proposes an inclusive citizenship policy, emphasising that “a commitment to a multi-cultural Scotland will be a cornerstone of the nation on independence”. And it is a credit to both sides in this campaign that neither has sought to play an ethnic card.

Neither has sought to define categories or degrees of Scottishness. We can be confident that this inclusive approach will be carried forward into the period after the referendum, whatever the result. Rocks would melt in the sun before the Scottish first minister expressed a reaction similar to that of the former Quebec premier.

The ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland programme will be conducting an academic survey during and after the referendum to try to understand why people voted yes or no, and the identities, attitudes and events that helped to shape their voting behaviour.

Previous referendum and election surveys would suggest that demographic characteristics – age, region, gender or country of origin – are unlikely to represent the decisive factor.

Posted in Referendum process, campaign and vote | 1 Comment

Reflections on the SNP conference

Professor James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh

Professor James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh

James Mitchell discusses this weekend’s SNP conference in Aberdeen, reflecting on the party’s 80 year history and its future.

The SNP meets in Aberdeen this weekend almost exactly 80 years after its foundation.  There will be many references to the long journey, the many friends lost along the way – no doubt Margo MacDonald will rate a few mentions – and insistence that repaying the debt requires current members to work hard up to the referendum.

Parties are like other institutions (and people) – they love anniversaries.  They adopt a Whiggish view of their history, viewing the past through the lens of today.  The referendum is seen as the inevitable climax of a long struggle for independence that started eight decades earlier.

Its opponents charge it with proposing ‘independence lite’ unaware that in so doing they are assisting the SNP in projecting an image that might be more palatable to Scotland’s rather (small ‘c’) conservative electorate.

There are continuities, not least evident amongst activists who kept the idea alive through generations.  But the SNP’s history has been marked as much by discontinuities.  The SNP of 1934 was on the fringe of the fringe.  Political history is littered with parties that fought to survive and survival invariably involved change.  The most enduring feature of the SNP has been its name.  Even that was questioned at various points.

Douglas Crawford (SNP for Perth and East Perthshire 1974-79) once suggested changing the party’s name but that suggestion found few supporters.  Even Alex Salmond once thought that the party ought to change its name.  His preference was for Scottish Independence Party to ensure its core objective was in its name but he soon abandoned the idea.  Instead, when he was a vice chair of the party in the 1980s he altered the party symbol in minor ways, each time irritating many members.

But even independence has not been the term for the core objective of the party throughout its history.  The party in 1934 compromised on ‘self-government’ and referred to ‘sovereignty’, in an ambiguous effort to draw in wide support.  But ‘independence’ became the common term used.  The party only formally changed its objective in its constitution in 2004 under an important review under John Swinney leadership.  There was a paradox in this change.  The party had shifted its view from Euroscepticism to Euroenthusiasm over the previous decade.  It was moving towards a more sophisticated understanding of the position of states in international politics yet the change appeared to signal a step backwards, towards a more hardline position.

The paradox is easily explained.  Independence operated more as a slogan, a means of mobilizing activists and offering a clear objective than as a fully developed constitutional option. That journey towards a more nuanced understanding combined with attachment to a symbolically sharper term has served the SNP well.  And it was a journey that continued.

The SNP White Paper on independence, issued after it first came to power in 2007, may have used the term independence but there were many references to interdependence. Even a casual reading of the document suggests a rejection of old-style notions of state sovereignty however much ‘sovereignty’ remains a favoured term amongst party activists.  The journey continued with the publication of last November’s White Paper.  Finding anyone in the SNP willing to concede that the prospectus was anything other than independence is a challenge.  Its opponents charge it with proposing ‘independence lite’ unaware that in so doing they are assisting the SNP in projecting an image that might be more palatable to Scotland’s rather (small ‘c’) conservative electorate.

But careful reading suggests that what the SNP proposes might be termed confederal.  In the final analysis the term adopted is less important, though not for activists. What is understood by independence has always been at issue.  How this is interpreted by the electorate will determine whether the SNP’s next conference will involve a massive celebration amidst the hard work involved in negotiations (old-style independence would require far fewer negotiations) or whether it needs to review not only its strategy but also how it conceives of Scotland’s constitutional future.

Posted in Referendum process, campaign and vote | 1 Comment

Constituting Scotland: a Retreat from Politics?

Dr Steven Tierney, University  of Edinburgh

Dr Steven Tierney, University of Edinburgh

Writing at the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum, Stephen Tierney discusses the prospect of an interim constitution in the event of a yes vote.

The Scottish Government has recently announced its intention to introduce a draft Scottish Independence Bill into the Scottish Parliament which will set out an interim constitution for Scotland in the event of a Yes vote in September’s referendum. It will also describe the process by which a permanent written constitution will be drafted following the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016. The announcement by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that this latter process will be participative and collaborative is to be welcomed, as is the Government’s commitment to the principle of the sovereignty of the people. In this article, however, I wish to challenge the modern inclination to embed more and more values beyond the reach of legislatures, arguing that popular sovereignty is best maintained by modest constitutional arrangements which leave as many policy choices as possible to elected parliaments.

As yet of course we don’t know what the final constitution will contain, but if Scotland does become independent it will do so at a time when more and more countries are opting for ever more elaborate written constitutional documents. It seems that this fashion is likely to rub off on any constitutional convention established to draft a Scottish constitution.

Once the essential organs of government have been established, why not leave the democratic will of the people, expressed through their Parliament, to shape policy for the new state? It seems strange that the newly won autonomy of an independent people should be immediately truncated by the deep entrenchment of a highly partial set of policy preferences.

The Scottish Government in its White Paper, Scotland’s Future has already suggested that Scotland’s constitutional structure is likely to be radically different from the current unwritten arrangement of the United Kingdom, entrenching issues as specific as a minimum standard of living, a ban on nuclear weapons and environmental protections. In this desire it is not alone; many constitutional activists at UK level would love such an opportunity to turn the UK constitution into a rigid structure of supposedly settled values, and who knows, Scottish independence may well provide that opportunity should the break up of the state prompt a moment of fundamental constitutional reconstruction also at UK level.

I should say immediately that my argument is not against a written constitution for Scotland per se. In the event of independence some form of foundational written document will be needed to replace the Scotland Acts of 1998 and 2012; even if an unwritten constitution were considered desirable, it is simply impossible today to replicate the conditions under which the UK Parliament acquired its authority. The powers of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government will require to be defined, as will the court structure, its hierarchy and the limits of its jurisdiction. A proposal to make provision for local government (proposed by the White Paper) would also fit within this model of a limited, institution-framing constitution; all of which would serve as a democracy-facilitating rather than a democracy-constraining set of provisions. But is it necessary to go beyond such a minimal constitutional model which would still leave policy choices to the new parliament? A new constitution will be needed, but it does not require to contain detailed policy issues which should rightfully remain the preserve of the elected parliament.

Notably the White Paper anticipates a document that will collate a very broad range of principles and detailed policies. For example:

  • entitlement to public services and to a minimum standard of living;
  • protection of the environment and the sustainable use of Scotland’s natural resources;
  • a ban on nuclear weapons being based in Scotland;
  • rights in relation to healthcare, welfare and pensions;
  • children’s rights; and
  • rights concerning other social and economic matters, such as the right to education and a Youth Guarantee on employment, education or training.

And this captures only a few of the policy preferences that will be put on the table during any drafting process. Certainly all of these issues will be for any constitutional convention drafting the constitution to determine, but the very fact that the White Paper considers such detailed policies to be appropriate for constitutional protection will serve to invite others to put forward their particular agendas and preferences, and these may well find their way into a new constitution, no matter how specific, contingent and deeply contested they may be.

I would like to sketch very briefly six key concerns with such a detailed model of constitutional codification:

  • legitimacy
  • judicial supremacy
  • rigidity
  • the stifling of political debate
  • a marginalisation of the political power of citizens, and
  • the creation of a constitutional battleground.

First, it seems highly questionable from the perspective of democratic legitimacy that the first generation of post-independence Scots should take upon themselves the power to crystallise a broad range of current predilections – some of which may well be fads – as constitutional principles. This will immediately constrain the decision-making capacity of successive generations of voters across a potentially vast array of policy issues.

Secondly, by constitutionalising specific values and policies, the constitution will significantly ramp up the powers of judges. The authority to resolve disagreements which are currently matters of political deliberation will be handed to a small unelected group which is arguably both unsuited and, in democratic terms, unentitled to determine these issues.

Thirdly, such a constitutional arrangement would bring a radical transformation to the constitutional culture of the country itself. Scots would be leaving what is arguably the most flexible constitutional system in the world and creating potentially one of the least flexible. It is fashionable (mainly among academics) to criticise the UK constitutional system precisely because of its unwritten form and the concomitant privilege given to the Westminster Parliament as sovereign law-maker. But this model has worked very well over several centuries, allowing the UK body politic to adapt itself smoothly to new developments: the creation and amendment of the devolution settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since 1998, and the conclusion of the Edinburgh Agreement paving the way for the independence referendum, being good examples. The principle underpinning parliamentary supremacy is a sound one: it is for Parliament, elected by the people, to debate and determine how law should manage competing political and moral values. If Parliament later changes its mind, this legislation is open to amendment or repeal by the same process. A written constitution replaces this with a form of rigidity which could lead to constitutional stasis. Furthermore, we also don’t know how deeply entrenched the new Scottish constitution will be because the convention which will draft the constitution will no doubt also determine its amendment procedure. But there is now a tendency around the world to make certain constitutional provisions virtually unamendable. At the very least, any issue given constitutional protection in a new Scottish state will be very hard to shift; that after all is the point of constitutional entrenchment. One mechanism which does serve to keep the people involved in constitutional deliberation is the referendum. It will be interesting to see what role, if any, is intended for referendums in the process of constitutional amendment under any new arrangements.

Beyond this, there is a danger that a highly detailed constitution can serve to supplant, and in so doing foreclose, political debate. Later attempts to amend issues which have been accorded constitutional protection will not only be difficult in practical terms but could be burdened with the stigma of illegitimacy. A constitution is not, after all, merely a regulatory device. It sets out the values of the state (particularly when it is a new state), and in doing so can help to shape the public identity of citizens. Once something is entrenched in a constitution it can become reified as a moral principle that transcends transient policy choices; extolled as a metaphysical value, the merits of which are rendered unimpeachable and to which citizens are called upon to owe unswerving allegiance. To campaign to amend such principles can lead to charges of disloyalty to the constitution and the political system itself. Incidentally, another recent move is to suggest that all holders of public office must pledge allegiance to the constitution and to its provisions: this is a particularly pernicious innovation, presenting the constitution as modern day Test Act, transforming dissent into heresy. It is to be hoped that this form of intolerance will be disavowed in any move towards a constitution for Scotland.

This raises a fifth issue: why do so many issues need to be entrenched beyond the decision-making competence of ordinary citizens? If matters of wealth distribution, international responsibility and good environmental policy are the preference of a majority of right-thinking people, why not leave it to the Scottish Parliament to legislate in these areas? Is there a failure of trust in the capacity of the people and/or the Parliament of an independent Scotland to make the right decisions? The rush to elevate so many issues beyond the realm of the political would seem to demonstrate a lack of confidence in a new country. Should the first step after ‘independence’ really be a detailed circumscription of the areas over which the Scottish people can, from generation to generation, determine and re-determine their own policies, in order to ‘protect’ them from their own ignorance or poor judgment? If Scots are fit for self-government then surely they are big enough and old enough to build their future through the rough and tumble of the political process.

A final danger is that if a signal is sent that the constitution is intended to micro-manage political and moral values then the constitution-drafting process could well become a battle for the soul of the country. The birth of the state could lead to a culture war resulting in a sharp delineation between victors and losers, and in turn leaving a large number of people feeling excluded from an elaborate, highly specific and deeply partial vision of national identity solidified in the constitution. Such a dispute could be just as acute, or indeed more acute, than the referendum campaign itself. It is not hard to imagine that certain pressure groups will be glad for the opportunity to see their own value preferences privileged within a constitution, placing these beyond the opposition of a simple majority of the people or their elected representatives. This, as I say, is a parlous game and a potentially undemocratic (as well as an entirely avoidable) one. It risks the drafting process being heavily influenced by the most vocal and best organised interest groups, including those which cast their opponents not only as wrong but as bad, thereby inhibiting debate and claiming that political victories which they manage to achieve are thereafter morally unquestionable and immune from any residual dissensus. By this construction it is not in reality the founding generation that gets to play for keeps, but rather activist elites within this generation which may well be both unelected and unrepresentative.

What then of the proposed process by which such a detailed constitution will come about? Until the Scottish Independence Bill is published we must rely upon the White Paper which suggests that a constitutional convention will ‘prepare the written constitution’ following the elections to the Scottish Parliament of May 2016 (some six weeks after Independence Day, set for 24 March). As yet we don’t know much about the proposed convention other than that it is intended to be ‘open, participative and inclusive’ and that the new constitution ‘should be designed by the people of Scotland, for the people of Scotland’. Given the potential that a highly detailed document will emerge from this convention, the composition of this body, who decides on its composition, how it deliberates and how it reaches decisions will each be a vital, and potentially deeply contentious, issue. We should watch keenly to see how the Scottish Independence Bill approaches these issues.

Independent statehood will itself be a massive step. Citizens will have to reorient their focus away from Scotland’s relationship with the UK political system, addressing one another in all their diversity as co-authors of a new polity. It should be a time for modesty and moderation, to take stock and consider the future carefully, to respect other views, to accommodate the deep differences that have always marked Scottish society but which have not been fully vocalised during a period in which attention was diverted from internal identities towards external influence. It will also be a time to heal divisions that may still be sensitive following the referendum campaign. I would counsel against rushing into an expansive process of constitution-building. Once the essential organs of government have been established, why not leave the democratic will of the people, expressed through their Parliament, to shape policy for the new state? It seems strange that the newly won autonomy of an independent people should be immediately truncated by the deep entrenchment of a highly partial set of policy preferences. The September referendum in itself encapsulates the spirit of vernacular politics – letting the people decide. If independence comes about, why would we abandon this inheritance?

Posted in Constitution | Leave a comment

Labour’s Devolution Proposals: More questions than answers

Writing at the Future of the UK and Scotland site, Nicola McEwen examines the proposals put forth by the Labour Party’s Devolution Commission.

The future of the welfare state has been a key feature of the referendum campaign. Against the backdrop of the UK government’s controversial welfare reforms, the Scottish government and Yes Scotland have argued that an independent Scotland would oversee a more progressive, fairer welfare system. The Labour Party’s Devolution Commission proposals, published yesterday, are likely to reinforce the centrality of the welfare issue. But Labour’s welfare state is unmistakably British.

The spectrum of proposals – on tax as well as benefits – rests on a characterisation of the UK as a ‘sharing Union’, where solidarity, risks and rewards are spread across the UK’s nations and regions. The report affirms the Devolution Commission’s belief that the majority of cash benefits – “the core of the Welfare State” – should remain a responsibility of the UK parliament and government. But it proposes the devolution of two key areas of social security – Housing Benefit and Attendance Allowance.

The justification given is that these benefits are closely linked to devolved responsibilities in housing, health and social care. The same could be said for many more areas of social security, from child benefit to pensions, but these are considered central to the pooling of risks and resources within the UK ‘social union’. Housing Benefit and Attendance Allowance also carry symbolic significance for Scotland. Housing Benefit invokes the bedroom tax, which has been used by Labour, the SNP and the Greens to symbolise the iniquities of the UK government’s reforms. Attendance Allowance is closely linked to that most symbolic of policy milestones of the Scottish parliament, free personal care.

At the heart of the debate, then, are competing visions of communities of belonging. For Labour, the boundaries of solidarity and community are British. For the SNP and the broader Yes Scotland movement, ‘sharing and belonging’ – solidarity and welfare – go together more easily within Scotland.

However, the report – or at least the Executive Summary which was published yesterday – is surprisingly lacking in detail about how these policy competences would be transferred, and with what implications.

  • Housing Benefit is one of six cash benefits being merged and replaced by the Universal Credit under the UK Government’s welfare reforms. Notwithstanding the problems which have beset the introduction of Universal Credit, the Commission’s ‘Executive Summary’ report makes no mention of it. How would Housing Benefit be disentangled from the other benefits and tax credits which make up Universal Credit? How would a separate Scottish housing benefit be delivered? On what basis would the revenues to be transferred to the Scottish government to cover one element of Universal Credit be calculated?
  • While most claims for social security benefits made by Scots are processed by DWP offices based in Scotland, Attendance Allowance is not one of these. DWP centres in Preston and Blackpool administer Attendance Allowance for the whole of the UK. Would these centres have separate service agreements with the Scottish government? What would be the impact on their capacity to deliver such a service were it to be designed in different ways in Scotland and the rest of the UK?
  • UK social security policy is implemented through a highly integrated system of processing and delivery, with a centralised, complex IT system which calculates entitlements based upon policies set by the UK government. There is no suggestion in the report of deviating from this system. Could such an integrated system cope with divergent policies from two governments? If so, how and at what cost?

Beyond these specific examples, the report concludes that social security is more properly a responsibility of the UK parliament, as a reflection of “the social solidarity that helps bind the UK together”. Running throughout the report is a vision of Union, and of Britishness, founded upon myths of the post-war welfare settlement. This nation-building rhetoric has been a feature of Labour discourse for many years, and was particularly evident in the speeches and statements of Scottish ministers within the 1997-2010 UK Labour government, especially those of Gordon Brown. It is quite clearly a statement of purpose for a British Union, not a vision of Scottish self-government within that union. In the context of the referendum campaign, and the austerity agenda and welfare retrenchment of the current UK government, it may be a difficult sell.

The debate over which level of government should deliver social security is in part about practical, financial and instrumental concerns, but it is also a debate about the boundaries of community, identity and belonging. Labour’s proposals are an appeal to Britishness and British solidarity. As Gordon Brown noted in his evidence to the Devolution Commission: “We choose to share these risks and the relevant resources with the people with whom we belong. Sharing and belonging go together.” At the heart of the debate, then, are competing visions of communities of belonging. For Labour, the boundaries of solidarity and community are British. For the SNP and the broader Yes Scotland movement, ‘sharing and belonging’ – solidarity and welfare – go together more easily within Scotland.

Posted in Constitution | 1 Comment