Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A Tale of Two Debates

So, yesterday, the day of Salmond and Darling’s second debate right?  Well early on Monday I heard that Paisley’s TUC had arranged a referendum hustings for that night.  So off I went, well you know I like a bit of a heated debate…

For Independence was the MSP for Paisley George Adam, for staying in the union was the Paisley & Renfrewshire North MP Jim Sheridan.  I wasn’t quite sure which of the other two people on the panel, the PCS Union’s Fiona McDonald and Clydebank Trade’s Union Council’s Tommy Morrison, sat on the issue.  I did think when Ms McDonald gently put forward her arguments for Independence that Sheridan was on his own regarding being pro-Union.  However when Mr Morrison started his opening statement it became clear that he was pro-Union.

What was interesting about Morrison was his euro-scepticism.  His arguments were the arguments that long time readers of this blog will have seen before.  Morrison as well brought up the TIPP trade talks between the EU and the USA, Morrison’s fear being that TIPP would open up our public services to privatisation in the event of a “Yes” vote.  Allied to his euro-sceticism, Morrison’s main argument for voting no was that this would not help the ordinary working man.  Morrison brought class into the argument, and to me that seemed rather crass.  Especially as, I think it was Fiona Morrison that pointed this out, it looks like those most likely to vote yes are people with nothing to lose.  Those people who go to foodbanks, with no mortgages, with very little currency (whatever that currency is).  Certainly the outbreak of windows in Glenburn with “Yes” posters bears this out.

I’m not really sure what to make of Jim Sheridan.  On the one hand he does come across as an old style Socialist.  Certainly tonight he was more critical of the Blair years than I’ve heard before, maybe that’s the frustration at the Unite scandal coming out.  On the other, he wasn’t that convincing regarding being pro Union.  I suppose, given that Milliband would be his vote for Labour leader 4 years ago, he is optimistic that he will be PM this time next year.  I just don’t get his optimism.

At the last hustings meeting I was at, the SNP were represented by Derek MacKay.  While George Adam wasn’t quite as smooth as MacKay, that actually was no bad thing.  He sort of handled the grenade that I lobbed into the debate.  Yup, you’ve guessed it  - Sterlingzone.  He did press the anti-Austerity/anti-Westminster, or as it could be argued turning the referendum into a vote of no confidence vote on Westminster, arguments successfully – which if you’ve read my last post I agree with.

Most impressive though was the PCS Union’s Fiona McDonald.  Her arguments echoed Adam’s arguments relating to the failure of the Union.  McDonald was also critical of the SNP’s policy relating to Corporation Tax and other aspects of the SNP’s “MacNewLabour”-isms.

While the Paisley Methodist Hall debate was a cordial affair with the odd stramash.  Things were completely different at the big debate on National (and International television) at Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery as Darling & Salmond slugged it out.

The first debate two weeks ago saw Darling win a bad tempered debate essentially by pressing Salmond on his plan B in the event of Sterlingzone not coming about.  I have suggested that Sterlingzone & the EU were the gifts that kept on giving until Salmond managed to square that circle.  Well, last night the well ran dry.

After the opening statements (Salmond’s was better, Darling’s would have been good were it not for the Better Together message being consistently undermined by the Westminster government) Darling brought up Sterlingzone.  Except this time Salmond was ready & sort of announced a policy shift of sorts.  I think.  Plan B it seems is that, well the Scottish Government don’t have a Plan B.  They have several options, which they want to keep open.  This isn’t politics, this is big business and there is no place in electoral politics for this type of macho posturing and pre-negotiation.

Darling went for the Sterlingzone issue in the economy section, yet should have kept it for the currency section.  He was probably thinking that it would be a repeat from two weeks ago.  Except Salmond’s assertion that he was seeking a mandate from the voters to negotiate Sterlingzone seemed to unnerve Darling.  Rather than overplay his hand on Currency, maybe Darling should have also attacked Salmond on the policy position regarding the EU.  Darling looked ineffective during the section on oil, while Salmond went to town on making the case not for independence but for a no confidence vote against Westminster.

Pro Indy supporters probably think Darling made a slip by saying that Scotland could use the pound (or whatever currency we choose).  That’s never been in doubt – what Osborne, Alexander & Balls are against is the Sterlingzone currency union which is different from what Darling conceded could happen.  It is disingenuous for pro-Indy supporters to suggest otherwise – as they have done.

Salmond’s slight shift vies-a-vie Currency Union and also the change of tack regarding attacking Westminster’s social policies over the last 20 years clearly won him last night’s debate.  In truth though, the BBC debate was all heat and no light.  More information came with the debate in Paisley, which brought up issues not touched on in Kelvingrove.  The EU, TIPP, workers rights & the constitution were issues that came up in Paisley.

Regarding the BBC debate, whether Salmond’s win translates into higher poll ratings for Independence remains to be seen.  What is sure is that the next set of polling will be eagerly anticipated and will determine whether Salmond’s win has provided the bounce the Yes camp desperately need.

Monday, 18 August 2014

One Month To Go - Why I'm Still Undecided

You know how time normally flies.  Well I can’t believe that it was 26 months since the campaign for the Independence referendum started at Cineworld Edinburgh.  There is a month to go, a month for many people to make their minds up.  Including me.

I admit to being sold on some aspects of the arguments for Independence.  The prospect of all policies being tailored to the needs of Scotland & Scottish people rather than to the needs of winning seats in the traditional swing areas that win Westminster elections.  It’s this that has been at the heart of the “Radical Independence” prospectus.  Unfortunately there is no roadmap to the prosperous Scotland with higher living standards.

The biggest issue with the arguments regarding Independence relate to the Salmond Plan.  I’ve posted ad nausium about Sterlingzone and how I don’t think it would be in the best interests of an Independent Scotland to be put into a fiscal straightjacket that would follow with the inevitable fiscal pact. I also think that the fiscal pact undermines the argument that “we would have all the economic levers available” which John Swinney says each time he appears on the broadcast media.

The other part of the Salmond Plan is of course the SNP’s policy regarding the EU.  I would rather we negotiate our way in and join after a referendum rather than the back door method that the SNP favour.  Pro-Independence supporters are all to willing to believe the benefits – in relation to trade – without even acknowledging the downsides.  Surrender of sovereignty being the main downside.

One of the developing arguments pro-Independence supporters are putting forward just now is that to save the NHS from privatisation at the hands of the Tories at Westminster then we should vote yes.  The argument goes that with more cuts being threatened by the Westminster parties, that this time Health budgets would not be ring fenced.  On a similar subject, Iain MacWhirter wrote some pieces some time ago about the controversial TIPP trade negotiations between the EU and the USA.  One of the proposals would see American healthcare firms be allowed to enter the European Healthcare “market” where there is private provision.  MacWhirter made the point that Cameron’s own Healthcare reforms make the English NHS TIPP compliant which would make them more susceptible to the large US medical companies moving in

In the short term a devolved NHS might be at more risk of TIPP than a fully independent one – MacWhirter identified that the Scottish NHS may well be at threat through court cases.  I don’t think an Independent Scotland makes an NHS free at the point of need entirely safe.  For one thing there may come a point where we elect a right wing Scottish Government that might enact policies that would make the Scottish NHS TIPP compliant.  For another the EU could well force us to be TIPP compliant.

Pro-Indy supporters would probably be up in arms at this suggestion, but the EU do have form in this respect.  EU Directive 91/440 ensures that there would be no return to a nationalised Scotrail.  Like this directive, which came a couple of years before the Tories own Rail privatisation plans came into force, any attempt to force the market-ization of the Scottish NHS would please the Tories.  So no I don’t think if I voted yes, the NHS would be any safer than if I choose to vote No.

Those are my reservations for voting Yes.  If you’re thinking that I’m going to vote no, you’ve not seen the title of this blogpost.  No’s biggest problem can be summed up in four words.

The Better Together campaign.

It’s not that they’ve been relentlessly negative, or not put forward reasons to stay in the union, though they have scraped the bottom of the barrel so many times I thought Blair McDougall had scraped his way to Australia by now.  It’s more that those reasons are more often than not undermined or usurped by announcement's aimed at Westminster’s true focus.  The Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems focus has been on next years Westminster election.  As far as they are concerned, the Independence referendum is a distraction, nay... a sideshow to the main event.  All three parties are fully signed up members of George’s not so marvellous medicine yet, in the case of Labour, deny that fact.

One of the arguments the No side make is that a vote for yes is not just for Christmas, that this is a long term decision.  The problem with that is that the next two or three generations of leaders at Westminster are not the most promising crop regarding being sympathetic to Scottish issues.  If Labour win next May, Cameron’s successor is possibly going to be either Theresa May or George Osborne, with the London mayor Boris Johnson maybe emerging as the challenger to May should he be elected to Westminster.  Should Cameron (as I think) stay in Downing Street, Milliband would lose the Labour leadership to either Yvette Cooper, Chukka Umuna or Rachel Reeves. Not names that inspire, all of them can be described as New Labour at least.

This isn’t a case of there being not enough information.  I have serious reservations about voting yes.  I also have deep reservations about simply voting no as well.  Both sides have 30 days remaining to convince me of their cases, otherwise it’s down to eeney meeney miney moe… After all I can’t be the only one in need of convincing?

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Bad Politics of Sterlingzone

Since the debate between Salmond & Darling on Tuesday, Sterlingzone has become front and centre of the Independence debate.  Darling’s win has even seen a swing in support towards the no camp in the first post debate poll (though the usual caviats apply – we need to see if other polls follow this pattern).  What the arguments disguise though is the bad decision making on both sides over this subject.
Osborne delivering what is now known as "The Sermon on the Pound"

In this week’s Sunday Herald, Salmond makes clear that according to his Fiscal commission, “retaining sterling in a formal currency union” is the best option for Scotland and for r-UK. Salmond’s arguments for the currency union range from it being “as much our pound” to the various trade related issues.  What Salmond doesn’t mention is the sovereignty that would have to be surrendered should I-Scotland’s proposal for “Sterlingzone” come to pass.  Mark Carney, while not saying that Sterlingzone will not occur did flag up that a fiscal pact would need to be negotiated between r-UK and I-Scotland – “in a monetary union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK the two parliaments would have to agree on whether fiscal rules were sufficient or whether similar risk-sharing mechanisms were necessary.  a durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty.

With that in mind, I simply do not understand the one-eyed dogma surrounding this issue from pro-Independence supporters.  We would have to surrender some of the economic levers of power were we to go into Sterlingzone, we would surrender some of our powers not just to one of our biggest competitors but also perhaps a neighbour with a grudge.  We simply do not know how r-UK will react if there is a “Yes” vote.  For pro-Indy supporters to claim that everything would be ok displays a sort of complacency.  Then again pro-Independence supporters seem to be blithely unaware of the consequences of Sterlingzone.

Considering that one of the key arguments for Independence is that decisions about Scotland would be made in Scotland & that we would be able to use all the economic levers in the best interests of Scotland.  Surely this argument is all rather disingenuous?

I had rather hoped that when it came to the currency issue, the pro-Indy groups would have advocated a “Scottish” Pound – initially tacked to Sterling but with no currency union agreement.  I had hoped that this arrangement would be a short to medium term currency in the timeframe it would take for us to set up a central bank/lender of last resort.  The option of a Scottish Pound is infinitely more preferable to Sterlingzone – with the fiscal straightjackets that presents.  In short, I do not believe that Sterlingzone would be in the best interests of I-Scotland.

More understandable though is the stance taken by the Westminster mandarins regarding Sterlinzone.  Their implacable opposition can be read as an opposition towards any form of currency union & in a sense is a refighting of the arguments possibly deployed when the debates raged in relation to the UK’s possible membership of the Euro in the 1990’s.  Blair when he was leader of the opposition was keen on the UK joining the Euro.  Arguably the person that kept us out of the Euro was Gordon Brown’s economic advisor – Ed Balls.

The civil service mandarins that wanted to keep Sterling out of the “ghastly” Euro would in no doubt be equally perturbed at Swinney’s back of a fag packet plan for a currency union when it surfaced a couple of years ago.  What is strange though has been the response of the finance ministers/spokesmen of the three Westminster parties.  Their motives are understandable, but their actions can be best described by quoting Michael Portillo on the subject “bad politics”.

From the point of view of R-UK, rejecting Sterlingzone does not make good sense.  The chance to hinder a potential competitor by putting it into an economic straightjacket, while keeping Sterling as a petro-currency – these arguments for Sterlingzone have been brushed aside because of Whitehall’s aversion to currency unions.  What is worse is the form that this decision has been put across.  Osborne’s now infamous “Sermon on the Pound” will go down in infamy as how not to talk to an electorate.  It was the most condescending & deeply patronising speech delivered by a senior British politician since…  well Thatcher’s own “Sermon on the Mound” in 1988.  That Balls & Alexander could not help themselves and rushed to support Osborne has tarnished their credibility in Scotland.

Instead of gleefully talking down to us and telling us that we will not be able to use the pound after Independence, Osborne should have set out his terms for a fiscal pact – and set high eye watering terms that would have shown the folly of Sterlingzone. The constraints on public spending & debts that the treasury would alow before agreeing to a currency union.  That would have torpedoed the folly that is Sterlingzone under the waterline.  Instead we have this argument where Westminster politicians claim that there will be no Sterlingzone if there is a Yes and nationalists stick their fingers in their ears, dismissing it as bluff – pointing to Nick Watt’s story in April. 

This techiness has infected the pre-negociating process already – witness Swinney’s threat that no Sterlingzone means we walk away from the UK debt free should we vote yes. Cue pro‑union politicians outraged at this blatant attempt at…  er…  negotiating (straight from the UK playbook of bullying tactics too…).  Milliband’s outrage on GMS on Friday morning did not have the desired affect as I kept on giggling at is faux outrage, I mean come on – what did you expect?

The Sterlingzone issue does seem to be the whole Independence debate in microcosm.  Pro-Indy supporters shun the common sense approach for an option that is not necessarily in the best interests of I-Scotland, when challenged on this, they display dogmatic behaviours.  In the mean time, the pro-Union supporters just get the wrong end of the stick entirely.  Once again, it shows that the pro-Indy camps have made bad policy choices that will come back time and again to haunt them.  The dogma may well be unedifying but they are tied to Sterlingzone – sink or swim.