Monday, September 30, 2013

One Year to Go. It looks like No.

It's not exactly been a happy pre-anniversary for the Yes Scotland campaign. Looking at the deluge of one-year-to-go opinion polls, the only sensible conclusion is that very little has changed and independence is set to be rejected by a substantial majority. Yes, the number of don't knows has gone up and there is a degree of fluidity about the supporters of devolution max. But there is no sign of an early breakthrough. Even Alex Salmond's Aberdeenshire school students blew him a raspberry by voting against independence in mock elections by a margin of three to one.

The economic argument rages on to no particular purpose. All sides accept that Scotland could be a viable economy on its own, but the £500 question remains unanswered. An opinion poll by ICM last week suggested that 47% of Scots would vote Yes if they could be assured that independence would make them richer by this amount, while only 18% would vote for independence if they were made poorer. Nicola Sturgeon welcomed this poll and insisted that “on the basis of the current Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report Scotland’s finances are stronger than the UK’s as a whole to the tune of £4.4 billion – which equates to £824 per person”. Whether this fiscal arithmetic is right or not, I find it rather demeaning for the question of Scotland's national renewal to be reduced to the cost of a minibreak in Benidorm.

Anyway, the Nationalists are always going to be on the defensive with these arguments because of the uncertainty factor. It is impossible to say whether Scotland would be better off after independence, and the hard fiscal reality is that a short period of post independence austerity is likely, even with the benefit of oil revenues. The Institute for Fiscal Studies claimed last week that Scottish public spending, which it says is 17% higher per head than in England, would be squeezed in a transition period as Scotland tried to grapple with the debts inherited from the UK.

Now, the Nationalists rightly say that this is hardly their fault, and that is true. They are also right to argue that with oil and renewable resources, Scotland could be a viable and very effective economy. But it is hard to argue with the IFS calculation that there would be significant spending constraints in the short term. The IFS is the gold standard of financial accounting and its assessments have to be taken seriously, unlike the UK Treasury, which has been frankly producing propaganda in the guise of economic analysis.

Now, in any normal independence situation, such transitional costs would be seen as a price worth paying for national freedom. You didn't find the Slovakia, the Lativa, or any of the other countries which won independence in 1990s worrying over such trivial sums. In Barcelona today, Catalonian nationalists don't march in their millions demanding 500 more euros – they demand an end to domination from Madrid, cultural liberation, control of their own affairs. Scottish independence is in danger of turning into a bean-counter convention, where people are arguing over the small change in the national accounts instead of creating a vision of a better society.

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Red Ed" is trying to make capitalism work.

From Herald, 26/9/13

Reaction to Ed Miliband's plan to freeze energy prices has been, well, electric. Energy UK warned of “black-outs”; Centrica said it might go out of business; press commentators accused “Red” Ed of taking Britain back to the bad old 1970s of price controls, shortages and nationalisation. I suspect most consumers, this one included, said: about time.

Price control is a pretty blunt instrument, but governments sometimes have to use blunt instruments to make industries behave. The energy monopolies have been racking up prices and profits in lock step for years, making a nonsense of any free market in energy. This has been noted by both the consumer rights group, Which, and the Commons Energy Committee.

Other European countries regulate prices including France, whose state-owned EDF charges lower prices to its domestic consumers than to consumers in Britain. This is why Miliband is so confident that his proposal is not going to break EU competition laws. The howls of anguish from business groups are unjustified. In 1997 Gordon Brown imposed a £5bn windfall tax on the privatised utilities – mainly energy companies again – and no one thought he was abolishing capitalism. Miliband's price freeze will cost them £4.5 billion, according to Labour. 

Friday, September 06, 2013

On yer bike Chancellor.

Talk about an open goal. The most unpopular Chancellor since Nigel Lawson, George Osborne, came north again this week, bearing Treasury propaganda disguised as objective analysis - and he seemed to get away with it. Where's the anger?

The independence campaign has not just stalled, it is in danger of going into reverse. People who were minded to vote Yes are flummoxed by the relentless stream of negativity from Westminster which the Nationalists seem unable to counter. Neither the SNP government, nor the Yes Scotland campaign seem able to mount a coherent, imaginative case for independence in a language Scottish voters can understand. I'm not surprised support for independence is back at its bedrock 25%.

The best Alex Salmond could come up with this week was abolishing early release for sex offenders – the kind of populist policy that Labour's Jack McConnell used to reach for when he was in a hole. Month after month the Nationalists repeat the same tired slogans about “completing the powers of the Scottish parliament” whatever that means; grasping the “ economic levers”. Maintaining the “social union”, the “defence union” – hey, why not the Union union?

There is a strategic problem with the independence case, which is that it has essentially framed the debate in its opponents terms. This is the classic mistake identified by George Lakoff in “Don't Think of an Elephant”. If you keep talking about unions then the message that will get across is is that union is rather a good idea. Better Together are much better unionists than the SNP so perhaps leave it to them.

The Yes campaign need to have aspiration, a shining city, a vision. Politics is about moral choices and this is what effective campaigns are based upon, not the dull and desiccated language of economics. Which doesn't mean that you duck economic arguments – in fact the SNP had an opportunity to do both this week, secure the moral high ground while rebutting the politics of fear.