A quick fix to Stormont’s broken system

Straight and to the point from my online sparring partner Andrew G. – as noted here last week, it is not so much the system which is broken as our willingness to share the burden, and often unpopularity, of government.

I have written many times before that the problem in Northern Ireland remains that each side is being sold a vision of outright victory, where the “other side” will just go away. For Unionists, Northern Ireland is “British” (whatever that now means), and thus “British” people should have precedence. For Nationalists, Northern Ireland is “Irish” and thus “Irish” people should have precedence. Anyone else is a “guest” – oh yes very welcome of course, but on the home side’s own terms only…

Whatever system you come up with, we still therefore live in a society where people elect parties to deliver outright victory. Since outright victory is impossible, this means eternal gridlock. Each side of that gridlock demands elections and so on, which will only deliver further gridlock. However, we need to remember something: it is not the politicians delivering gridlock. The politicians are only there because we put them (or allowed them to be put) there. We are responsible for the gridlock!

Therefore it doesn’t much matter what “system” you have in place, until we elect parties who are honest enough to recognise compromise isn’t a dirty word, and that in an inevitably multi-party government it will be absolutely necessary, there is no chance of progress. Frankly, we need to stop being selfish and demanding it all our own way or no way. (I have written before how “Progressives” are as guilty of this as anyone else.)

In short, the issue isn’t that we don’t have an opposition, it is that we don’t have a government! It is not that the government isn’t held to account – it is that it is, to the extent that it is even held to account by its own members, rendering effective governance impossible. (That is not to say that a large minority cross-community ‘opposition’ wouldn’t help, by the way – it is just that the problem needs defined properly and we need to be realistic about the prospects of delivering this.)

It so happens, to force some progress, I would establish an external “Independent Standards Commission” on a similar basis to the previously existing “Independent Monitoring Commission”. This would have a remit to do two things:

  • assess the validity of Petitions of Concern, with the power to instruct the Speaker to render them invalid if: a) they do not have signatures from more than one “designation”, and b) it is not clearly indicated how the issue would negatively impact in a discriminatory way on a specific group; and
  • hold judicial authority to remove/bar a Minister found guilty of breaching the Ministerial Code.

This would mean that Petitions could only in future be used as they were intended in the Agreement (i.e. as a genuine protection); and that the Ministerial Code (which was central, we should recall, to the DUP’s “victory” at St Andrews) would be enforced.

This would have an important practical outcome as it would no longer be necessary for both the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree on things for them to pass: either the DUP or Sinn Fein would be free to seek an alternative majority (in practice requiring at least two designations) from among other parties to get things through. This would have the effect at least of limiting gridlock. It would also re-establish the primacy of the Rule of Law and consensus – Ministers would no longer be able to attack the police or the judiciary, nor would they be able to go on “solo runs” on big issues only to find them subsequently overturned in Court.

However, this would still only be a sticking plaster until such time as the electorate realises that if it wants progress for all of Northern Ireland, it has to vote for parties who represent progress for all of Northern Ireland. It’s that simple.

If you’re going to be a pedant…

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt corrected Alliance leader David Ford in the Assembly this week – when the latter used the word “referendums“, the former couldn’t get in quickly enough to interject with “referenda!

Well indeed, every Oxbridge-educated scholar would know that the plural of neuter second declension nouns in Latin is -a.

Except, ahem, referendum is not a second-declension noun. It is a gerund, and thus has no plural as such.

It is true that gerunds have plural forms. However, because it is a gerund, referendum in Latin means “referring thing” or perhaps more idiomatically “referred matter”; thus the plural form referenda would mean “referred matters”.

However, only one matter was referred to the people of Scotland last week – thus it was a referendum. The clear context of Mr Ford’s remarks was to refer to similar instances of a single matter being referred – in which case the productive plural formation is quite correctly referendums.

If you’re going to be a pedant, it pays to know your stuff. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Did SNP strategy blow independence this decade?

It was certainly a respectable, if not remarkable, “Yes” vote in Scotland last week. Credit for that goes partly to the general political and social trends of this decade inside and outside Scotland, as well as to an astonishingly well run “Yes” ground campaign.

Yet I cannot help but wonder if an alternative SNP strategy would have secured a “Yes” vote – and possibly even a sizeable majority.

If, instead of producing a 700-page document of its version of an Independent Scotland, the SNP had instead said that a “Yes” vote would be considered a mandate to negotiate a sovereignty deal to be put back to the people in March 2016, would there in fact have been support for that? In this alternative world the SNP would have said “We will consider a ‘Yes’ vote a mandate to negotiate a Currency Union with England and Wales, and accelerated member state status within the EU; then we will come back to you with the outcome of those negotiations with two options – support the outcome, or reject the outcome and declare independence unilaterally.”

It is almost certain that the outcome in those circumstances, in September 2014, would have been a majority for the concept at least of “Scotland being an independent country”, as the uncertainties that “No” was able to play on would have been removed (at least for the time being). A referendum outcome like that would have been a huge mandate that would have left London’s negotiating hand a lot weaker than it would have been even if “Yes” had won last week.

In the event, the outcome of the negotiations may well have been “here’s a mega-devo-max” offer from London and a “Look, you’re going to have to join the Euro” from Brussels. In which case those two options could have been put to the Scottish people with absolute certainty as to the practical outworkings of each. Of course, they may well have opted for the former, rendering the answer to my question in the headline of this piece “No”. But they may not…

I quite admired the SNP’s determination to go for it straight. It worked a lot better than I and many others reckoned it would. However, it also left a lot of uncertainty – which remains, even after. I just wonder if there was another route.

Borrowing key, not Corporation Tax

This piece on a “Federal UK” requires some more thought on the fiscal issues. Frankly, I am no expert on these!

However, I am increasingly of the view that the only two taxes really in play for devolution are duties (on drinks or flights or whatever) and income tax. 

Listening to interviews with the key decision makers on this issue, the relevant point here is that corporation tax is always assumed to be remaining UK-wide (except, naturally, by Northern Ireland’s First Minister in the Assembly yesterday). There is an understandable wariness to devolve this (at least in totality), partly because it is complex (for example, you have to stop Tesco, BP or HSBC just moving its office of registration) but mainly because it would simply encourage a “race to the bottom”.

There is just about the possibility now that Corporation Tax powers could be devolved to Northern Ireland alone as part of a “scatter gun approach”. This would be an error – the fundamental lesson must be that each of the four countries should have the same powers exactly (whether they choose to use them is up to them). However, the strong probability is that Corporation Tax powers will in fact be taken off the table – possibly replaced by income tax powers.

With regard to VAT, I should emphasise that, despite the First Minister’s positivity, I never saw it as a candidate for devolution either (again, just too complex). However, I do see scope to enable any growth in VAT receipts in a particular region to be retained b the region delivering the growth – potentially that even includes City Regions, not just devolved countries.

Note that the likeliest thing is that income tax will be set at 10 percentage points below the current rate, with each country then entitled to raise the remainder as it sees fit.

For all that, the very biggest fiscal requirement for me is one which is never mentioned – borrowing powers. There are two aspects to this:

  • each devolved country should be able to retain any under-spend at the end of each financial year to put into its own pot the following year (currently, except where specifically negotiated, any money left over is returned to the Treasury; the result of this is the mad February/March spending sprees we see to get the money spent, which means it is often spent in a very short-termist and ineffective way – on programmes which don’t help or pavements which don’t need repaired);
  • each devolved country should be able to borrow money, probably from the Treasury (which would need a contingency of its own), or to bid jointly for money from a “Federal Programme Fund” (say for cross-border roads, ferry subsidies or whatever).

It is these borrowing powers, combined with a non-requirement to return under-spends, which would probably make the biggest practical difference – boringly technocratic though they sound!

A Federal UK – from 2010

March 2010:

The expiry of the UK and English Parliament sees the announcement of the main Officers for the three main parties ahead of May’s General Election. Incumbent Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown announces Alistair Darling as prospective Chancellor, David Miliband as prospective First Secretary of State; and Yvette Cooper as ‘Lead Candidate’ – i.e. prospective Home Secretary and First Minister for England. The Conservatives’ David Cameron puts forward George Osborne, William Hague and Theresa May for the roles, much to the frustration of Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling. The Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg has Menzies Campbell, Danny Alexander and Vince Cable – a surprise move which sees Chris Huhne sidelined, something which he would come to be grateful for.

April 2010:

“Lib-mania” breaks out as Nick Clegg’s dominant performance in the UK-wide Prime Ministerial debate is followed by another win for Vince Cable in the Lead Candidates’ debate, shown only in England. The Liberal Democrats briefly lead the polls.

May 2010:

The outcome of the election is a Conservative overall majority of 40 in England; but they are short by 19 UK-wide – a “semi-cohabitation”. Gordon Brown refuses to resign, saying he may be able to lead at federal level. David Cameron says it is clear his party has won in England, and that he will make a comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats to back him on issues of confidence and supply across the UK. Nick Clegg names his price – income tax allowance to be progressively raised to £10,000, a referendum on the electoral system with fixed parliamentary terms, and Lords Reform. The Conservatives are not for messing around, however – Theresa May is invited to Buckingham Palace and invited to form an English Executive; four days later, having compromised on the first two of Mr Clegg’s demands but rejected the third, David Cameron enters Number 10.

2011:

An AV referendum is called, but heavily defeated. The Conservatives proceed to re-draw England’s electoral boundaries, easily able to do so with their majority there.

2012:

Having unsuccessfully sought a deal to manage a compromise across the UK, the Conservatives proceed to raise tuition fees to £9,000 for English universities – the star of the show, however, is Vince Cable, whose impassioned Commons speech in opposition to tuition fees of any sort (and case for their replacement by a “Graduate Tax”) wins near universal plaudits. The Liberal Democrats continue to dominate the air waves with their anger that full fiscal autonomy to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is not proceeding because it needs to be matched by Lords Reform.

2013:

The Conservatives’ plan to bomb Syria is rejected by a vote of the UK Parliament, showing it can continue to act on “federal” matters. Meanwhile, plans to resolve congestion at London’s airports hit gridlock as a meeting between Lord Chancellor Dominic Grieve with the four Transport Ministers arrives at no conclusion other than the desirability of an increase in capacity. Greater Manchester’s Council leaders express anger that they were not included at such a meeting, arguing that the aviation problem is a perfect reason to re-balance England’s regional economic policy towards the North West.

2014:

The year is taken over by the Scottish independence referendum, where polls show a potential majority in favour of independence just 10 days out. However, former PM Gordon Brown intervenes with a draft private member’s bill for greater fiscal autonomy, devolution of welfare and reform of the Lords – leaving it for the media to note that alongside the Liberal Democrats and some regional MPs he has a majority to put it through the UK Parliament even without the Conservatives by March. The polls swing back and independence is rejected 57-43. Greater Manchester’s Council leaders repeat their demand for greater autonomy of their own and, accepting they can do nothing to stop the Brown Plan, the Conservatives set up an English Constitutional Convention.

2015:

Lords Reform dominates the early part of 2015, but bores the electorate. It does mean, however, that the UK General Election is dominated again by the Liberal Democrats, whose effective and experienced front-bench team (Clegg, Teather, Danny Alexander, Cable) and anti-Westminster platform secures 80 seats in England. This means Ed Miliband’s Labour (running Miliband, Douglas Alexander, Balls, Cooper) has a majority across the UK, but falls short in England, hampered by the new boundaries. The Conservatives (Cameron, Hammond, Osborne, May) deny they have lost a mandate to govern in England, and suggest they may seek a coalition with the Liberal Democrats to continue to do so.

Nevertheless Ed Miliband, able to command a majority in the UK Parliament, is appointed Prime Minister and immediately seeks a way of securing a majority among English MPs too, in order to form an English Executive under Yvette Cooper before the Conservatives, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats can cobble anything together.

“You know my price,” says Mr Cable when Mr Miliband calls him about it, “I want tuition fees reduced back to where they were and a vow that sees graduate tax devolved”.

“No problem there,” says Mr Miliband, “Tell you what, if you form a coalition I have no doubt Yvette will look kindly upon pointing you Deputy First Minister and Secretary of State for Skills in England to make sure”.

“Well, I’m afraid I can’t accept that particular offer,” says Mr Cable, “You see, I’m about to announce my candidacy for another top job, part of which would involve sorting the airport issue”.

“I see. Well, between ourselves, looking at the polls, it looks like we’ll be getting to know each other rather well then”, says the new Prime Minister to the next London Mayor…

US must win Ryder Cup

Europe is getting just a bit cocky about its favourites tag for this week’s Ryder Cup. Here’s why a bet on the Americans may not be a bad thing.

Firstly, the “Miracle at Medinah” was something of a fluke. In fact, in 2012, the Americans won 17 more holes than the Europeans. Excluding the 18th, they actually won 25 more – nearly one per match. American wins were all 5&4, 4&2 and such like – whereas the Europeans won not a single match before the 17th. The Americans played the better golf but crumbled right at the end if it came to it.

Secondly, the Ryder Cup needs an American win. If Europe wins, that’ll be 6 of the last 7 and 8 of the last 10 (and five in a row at home). That is no longer competitive – it is almost a return to the days of the Americans beating the British Isles all the time.

2014 was the first ever year that Europeans won 3 out of the 4 majors. It would be good for golf, however, if the late honours in the year went back across the Atlantic.

Notes on the Scottish Outcome

I’d be interested in comments on these thoughts about the electoral situation in Scotland now after the referendum results. They are in no particular order and I am but an outsider, so corrections welcome!

1. Polling surveys can be better than exit polls. Postal votes accounted for the majority of the gap between “Yes” and “No”. Roughly 3.6 million votes were cast, nearly a fifth of these were by post (as postal “turnout” exceeded regular turnout, as it always does); it is possible as many as 70% of those 700,000 were for “No”, but even if that is an exaggeration the chances are that the gap within those 700,000 was at least 200,000 – more than half the final 400,000 gap. This was the fundamental peril of an exit poll, and it actually why YouGov’s final “survey” (which included postal voters) was more accurate than an exit poll would have been.

2. Scotland is now split four ways in terms of political identity. Around a quarter of the population are vehemently Scottish Nationalist, telling pollsters that this was about “freedom” and getting away from the “yoke” or even “slavery” of England; around a quarter favour Scottish independence but with no particular nationalist fervour, they merely believe it is time for Scotland to “stand on its own feet” or for Scottish decisions to be “made in Scotland”; another quarter feel Scottish predominantly or solely but are relatively content to be in a Union with other countries if it is deemed to be in their economic or social interests; a final quarter are British (though they see no clash between this and Scottish of course) and would have sense a profound loss of identity in the event of independence. The battle of course was fought in these middle two quarters; the skill of the “Yes” campaign was utterly to detach the notion of “Scottish Nationalism” on one hand from the notion of “Scottish independence” on the other, but they didn’t quite do enough in the end to ease uncertainty among those who feel Scottish and are open to independence but also have no real objection to being in a Union.

3. The SNP will be unharmed by the defeat. On the contrary, 45% is something of a victory in context. The challenge for the SNP is to keep united under new leadership (something which did not happen post-1995 in Quebec, to use that risky parallel). This will be challenging, not least because there are obvious personality clashes (as there were the last time Mr Salmond stood down) and the SNP has to meet the aspirations now both of Scottish Nationalists and of what we may now call Scottish sovereigntists (see above, i.e. those who want an independent Scotland for the sake of standing in the world as it is now or simply breaking away from a British elite, but who have no interest in Wallace or such). However, the prize for unity is a good result in 2015 for a start. Despite not doing so well in the “heartlands” at this referendum, there is no reason the SNP should expect to lose UK Parliament seats; on the other hand, the good performance in Glasgow and other urban areas means they may reasonably expect to gain seats there (especially if they can appeal to “sovereigntists”).

4. The Scottish Conservatives now have most to gain. “No” did markedly well in areas which are (or were recently) SNP/Conservative marginals and, even more relevantly, the Scottish Conservatives are now offering more powers to Scotland than anyone else except the SNP itself among the four traditionally main parties. It is a big ‘if’, but if the Conservatives can get the balance right between meeting the interests of “English votes on English issues” with “fiscal autonomy for Scotland” and lead the delivery of both, they will reinvent themselves as a distinctly Scottish party with a track record of delivery there. It is a big opportunity.

5. Gordon Brown had nothing to do with it. The fairly boring story of the polls in this referendum is that the polls were right, except that as ever they missed the 3-5 point swing to the status quo at the very end (hence my own prediction on Facebook on the morning of voting that the result would be “around 55% no”). There was no late swing in the final 24 hours beyond that which was predictable weeks beforehand. Gordon Brown’s speech was an absolute barnstormer, but it was too late and made no difference. (“The Vow” had very little to do with it either – it was a foolish, cack-handed and mischievous response to what was, frankly, one dodgy poll by a company which proved overall to be among the least accurate.)

6. The “Yes” campaign was predominantly civic and not political, and thus so must the response be. A Constitutional Convention is a good idea, both within Scotland and across the UK.

Scotland should vote for compromise and Currency Union – and thus vote “no”

Well this has been fascinating. The Scottish referendum has been lost by politicians, and won by democratic dialogue in the bars, allotments and social clubs of Scotland. It has taken twists and turns which no one – certainly not I – predicted.

Today is decision time. At its best, “Yes” puts forward a highly attractive argument that Scotland should stand on its own two feet; at its worst, it forgets that “independence” is a ridiculous and alarmingly parochial concept in a globalised world dominated by corporations, not states. At its best, “No” puts forward a highly attractive argument for maintaining a historically hugely successful and influential multinational liberal state (with none more influential within it than Scots); at its worst, it has resorted to nonsensical scare tactics which demean the obvious brilliance of the Scottish nation.

As it happens, given the fairly uninspirational nature of its campaign, if I were in Scotland I would be trudging along to vote “no”. Ironically, I would be doing so as it offers the best route to an option which satisfies the aspirations of the large majority of Scots (enhanced powers without the risks), and because of a case made by the “Yes” campaign!

The case is this: for all its talk about becoming Scandinavia or making its own choices, the “Yes” campaign argues nevertheless that it wishes to share the pound sterling, share the Bank of England, and share England’s monetary policy in their entirety because their economies are so inextricably linked. This is their case for a “currency union”. Yet this is also a case for a “political union”!

It is not just an economic point. It is also a political one – for there is something mischievous about essentially suggesting you can be independent and have everything bad change but everything good remain. We have to ask why Scotland wouldn’t have its own currency to be truly “independent” or why it would not join the Eurozone like Ireland? If the answer is that it is far more like the rest of the UK than elsewhere, then why on earth leave? If the answer is that using sterling is temporary, then why not be up front about it? All of this hints at an underlying uncertainty or even deviousness about what people are really being asked to vote for.

It is also divisive. The problem with referendums is that they are “Yes/No” and thus offer no means of compromise. The best compromise – the one the vast majority of Scots could easily tolerate – is enhanced powers without the risks of “independence” in an uncertain world. You don’t get that by voting “yes”; you probably do by voting “no”. It’s all a bit messy and last-minute, but then compromise often is.

In the end, therefore, I come down on the side of those who suggest that Scotland has more in common with the rest of the UK than anywhere else and should therefore share a currency with it. The easiest way to do that is by remaining in the UK! I accept Scotland has already psychologically left the UK but I would urge Scots therefore to vote “no” – and then let 63 million people rebuild a properly federal, progressive UK together.

The challenge of a Federal UK

Tomorrow’s referendum has been presented as a “Yes” vote for the freedom of the Nordic Social Model on one hand; or a “No” vote for the security of the “best of both worlds” and a Federal UK. The former, as noted on this blog, is a fantasy. The problem is, the latter may be too – developing a Federal UK is nothing like as simple a task as its proponents make out. Nevertheless, it so happens that it is my own constitutional preference, and so I have given it some thought – I will share this, for what little it’s worth, on Referendum Eve!

Leaving aside the questions of how precisely to develop localism in England and what to do about London’s dominance of the English/UK economy, there are three main difficulties with developing federalism in addition to the obvious one of “English votes on English issues”.

We need to remember also that the whole point of federalism is that each country would have the precise same “devolved powers”. Quite what these powers are should probably be a matter for a UK Constitutional Convention of some sort. However, for the purposes of this article we assume the maximum devolved powers currently applying anywhere will in future apply everywhere – so Northern Ireland’s unique powers in Employment and Welfare as well as its own Civil Service and tax-varying powers on air duty will be mimicked in Scotland and Wales; Scotland’s unique tax-varying powers on income tax will be mimicked in Northern Ireland and Wales; Wales’ unique borrowing arrangements will be matched in Scotland and Northern Ireland; and so on. This is essential – asymmetrical devolution (the UK currently, Spain, arguably Canada) inevitably creates separatist tensions; symmetrical federalism (Germany, United States) works.

It is obvious, of course, that there should be “English sitting days” at Westminster as proposed by David Davis, and that MPs sitting for English constituencies should be the only ones voting on issues which affect England only – creating a de facto English Parliament. This does create an arguable imbalance, but no more than would be the case if each country were sovereign, and one that can be countered anyway by greater English localism. However, three fundamental problems remain:

  • legislation at Westminster rarely applies only to England (in reality or in theory);
  • departments in Whitehall usually have functions applying only to England and other functions applying to the entire UK; and
  • finance is nearly all raised at UK (“federal”) level even though most decisions are made at devolved (“country”) level.

On legislation, even laws which look like they apply only to England may apply elsewhere or have obvious consequences elsewhere. For example, most of the provisions of the Child Poverty Act apply only to England, but some aspects place statutory requirements across the UK (and thus on devolved administrations); the policy on tuition fees in England affects devolved budgets through “Barnett Consequentials” (an issue to be resolved under Finance); and so on. Federalism would require the area of application of legislation to be absolutely clear, with no mixing – entire bills at Westminster would either apply to England, or to the whole UK.

In terms of departments, UK Federal Cabinet may look like this. Each Department would now specifically be England-only or UK-wide. Those in the Cabinet Office, the Foreign Office and initially the Treasury would be UK-wide (although there is a real case, below, for the latter to move towards being England-only); those in the Home Office would become essentially those of an “English Executive”, run solely for England (on occasions, and again these would specifically be noted, excluding London). The Home Secretary would essentially become England’s “First Minister”; UK functions of the Home Office and other Departments would switch instead to a successor of the current Department of Constitutional Affairs. It is noteworthy also that, UK-wide at least, these Departments/Offices would remain absolutely stable in statute due to their federal nature – they could not just be jumbled around by an incoming UK Government at will, because that may disturb the balance and cause difficulties if later transfer of powers (notably from the Treasury) were sought. There is also some hint already in that “Federal Cabinet” of a recognition of London’s unique role as “Federal Capital” and its consequent relevance to the whole UK, which may in time develop into a fifth “federal unit” on its own alongside the four countries.

(It is worth being clear what this means in terms of Government appointment and staffing after a UK General Election. The Prime Minister would be appointed on ability to command a majority in the UK Parliament and would in turn advise on appointments to “Federal Offices”, but the Home Secretary would now be appointed directly and separately on ability to command a majority on English sitting days and would advise on appointments to English Departments; these would always be two different people, and may well be in two different parties. The position of Minister for the Civil Service transfers to the latter because this would now be England-only; Federal Offices would be staffed separately, perhaps from a separate “Federal Civil Service”.)

Finance is perhaps the most important issue. Federalism surely demands that most revenue is raised at devolved level; that would mean, in effect, the raising of almost every tax separately in England (perhaps also in London), Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and then some handed to the “federal” authorities, not the other way around. Compared to the status quo, that is the most dramatic – and no doubt politically most problematic – change of all. There would be transfer payments to poorer countries to ensure the same basic standard of living (perhaps a nominal “maintenance of the Barnett formula” could be politically justified with this, but the total amount in the pot would be reduced from the current level), but each country would nevertheless be encouraged to develop its own revenue streams, its own exports and its own entrepreneurial/investment-friendly culture – for example, by enabling any growth in VAT receipts to be retained (as reward) for public services entirely within that country. (I should be clear that the level of VAT and some other taxes would likely remain set at “Federal” level to avoid a “race to the bottom”.) In short, the basic principle that finance must be raised at the level at which the decisions are taken must be maintained. This all means that any country which gets embroiled in sectional in-fighting and endless institutional gridlock which create difficulties for the business environment will no longer be bailed out…

There are other issues to consider too:

  • Statute of Autonomy would need to be put in place for each country (including England), removing the automatic Parliamentary Sovereignty from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (whose devolved legislatures would become equally sovereign, similar to the United States) – noting the above requirement that it would be identical in the powers allocated to each (but it may differ, for example, in establishing requirements to leave the UK, or recognising unique citizenship issues in Northern Ireland, and so on);
  • it would be helpful when writing these to establish and maintain the same phraseology – perhaps all devolved legislatures should be Assemblies (versus the UK Parliament); all devolved governments should be Executives (versus the UK Cabinet); all devolved-level elections should be Legislative Elections (versus the UK General Election) and so on;
  • Lords Reform comes back on to the agenda – with a real case for ensuring appointed membership (or any future elected membership) is in line with vote share at both UK General and devolved Legislative elections (and there is a case, at this level, for over-representing the devolved countries to counter some of the effects of “English sitting days”);
  • it may be helpful (particularly for tax purposes) to establish citizenship of each country (again similar to split citizenship as exists in the United States) – establishing in law the concept of British-English; British-Scottish; British-Welsh; British-Northern Irish and Irish-Northern Irish (perhaps also British Islands and British Overseas citizenships too) as well as, perhaps, ensuring equal rights and responsibilities for all these citizenships and Irish citizenship within the current UK, regardless of future constitutional settlements (not unlike the 1998 Belfast Agreement with regard to Northern Ireland).

As can be seen, this is perhaps a much more complex thing to be developed as a knee-jerk reaction to a few opinion polls in one part of the UK (“The Vow” certainly does not do justice to these complexities and will only frustrate those who wish to see greater democratic influence and participation in England). However it is, at least, possible if we really want it.

Obsession with “private” involvement in Health is hypocritical nonsense

The equipment used by the Health Service is privately produced. The medicines are privately provided. The hospitals are privately built.

That alone – in addition to the fact school materials are privately published, roads are privately constructed, key public sector recruitment is privately delivered – should tell us what an absolute nonsense our politicians’ obsession with ‘privatisation’ of our Health Service is.

Politicians, particularly in Northern Ireland (but also notably in Scotland and Sweden currently), are experts at trying to pull the wool over our eyes by taking a stand on something they can’t deliver or focusing on something they know to be irrelevant to draw our attention away from the issues they could affect but aren’t competent enough to deal with. Yet again we see them failing completely to capture the key issues around Health (and indeed Welfare) Reform, while at the same time frothing at the mouth about “privatisation” in health care.

This would indeed be a scandal if it turned out that contracted private provision were actually costing more than public provision would. Self-evidently, however, it is costing less – otherwise it wouldn’t be contracted. The public sector doesn’t produce health equipment, or provide (and research) medicines, or build hospitals (or for that matter schools or roads etc) precisely because it would be more expensive and less efficient (generally – there are exceptions, particularly the dreadful PFIs). The reason is that the private sector can research and thus deliver specific, advanced, innovative expertise well beyond that provided by the public sector because the private sector can take risks while developing and researching this expertise that the public sector can’t. There is no particular reason that health care provision would be any different. That is why many countries have it – including right-wing hotbeds like Sweden and Denmark (where even the ambulances are private).

It is noteworthy also that the concern in this “debate” is not the patient (for not once has anyone suggested patients are receiving inferior care or placed in greater danger by private provision) and far less the taxpayer (who is receiving greater value). Oh no, we hear nonsense about “the private sector is only in it for the profit” – ignoring of course the point that public sector workers receive higher salaries and pensions, one of the likely reasons that private sector provision is better value and more efficient for the taxpayer. (One correspondent even condemned the notion of trying to provide services “on the cheap” – as if that’s a bad thing!)

What is happening here is a nonsensical and hypocritical “sector wars” approach which attempts to pull the wool over our eyes to protect a system which is bureaucratic, inefficient and expensive. Laughably, this is presented as “protecting the NHS”!

In fact, to “protect the NHS” (i.e. a Health and Social Care Service free at point of access which provides quality provision without an unbearable burden on the taxpayer) it will become increasingly important to shift to less bureaucratic, more efficient, more cost-effective means of service delivery. Unlike politicians who are actually endangering the Service with their hypocritical bluster, I don’t care which sector provides that as long as it is ultimately accountable – and, if you really care about the principles of the NHS, nor should you.

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