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Archive for January, 2012

It will be a while yet before Scots get the chance to vote on the country’s future political structure. Now at least we have a slightly clearer idea of how the Scottish Government sees the process working with the publication of its consultation paper on the process.

“Your Scotland, Your Referendum” sets out nine questions on the key procedural issues as well as appending a draft of the bill that the SNP Government would place before the Scottish Parliament. Comments are sought by 11 May 2012.

And it makes very interesting reading too, especially as many of the issues are matters of contention between the UK Government in Westminster and the Scottish Government in Holyrood.

Some of the proposals we already knew from previous announcements. The proposed Autumn 2014 date has been widely debated. Whether you believe that the delay is for procedural or political reasons, it looks like Alex Salmond has won this one. It will be over two years before we go to the polling booths.

The paper backs away from the establishment of a Scottish Referendum Commission to oversee the election, instead giving the job to the established and respected Electoral Commission. Makes perfect sense to me – and it was what the UK Government proposed all along. Will this be played as a Salmond concession in negotiations? And what will he look for in return?

The legal discussion on whether the Scottish Parliament actually has the power to call a referendum is discussed in the paper and the UK Government’s consultation paper is also mentioned. While Salmond and co don’t technically admit to being wrong, a compromise is suggested, through the so called Section 30 approach, where Westminster legislation can be used to give the Scottish Parliament the authority that the UK Government says is required.

But this consultation states that the UK Government must impose no conditions as a part of that transfer of authority and that all matters to do with the organisation of the referendum must be decided by the Scottish Parliament.

Clearly there is still discussion between the two Governments to come, and we know that meetings have been arranged. What sort of deal can be agreed, we will need to wait and see.

The matter of the question, or indeed questions, to be decided on in the referendum is another key issue. The paper suggests a single, short question on the ballot paper with a Yes and No boxes:

“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

Now, firstly, it is interesting to note that this is a much simpler question than the one previously proposed by the SNP, which was:

“The Scottish Parliament has decided to consult people in Scotland on the Scottish Government’s proposal to negotiate with the Government of the United Kingdom to achieve independence for Scotland:

“Put a cross (X) in the appropriate box

“I AGREE that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state.

OR

“I DO NOT AGREE that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state.”

The excellent Lallands Peat Worrier blog (http://lallandspeatworrier.blogspot.com/) suggests that this clarity implies that a deal is assumed with Westminster. In brief, the legalese has been stripped out because Salmond and co are convinced that there will be an agreement reached on competence that cannot be challenged in court. It will be a binding referendum.

I would tend to agree with this analysis. This is a matter that must be settled at the ballot box by the people of Scotland, not through the legal system. And I am glad we will have a clear proposal with two obvious options on the table.

I am also pleased that the proposal is for one single question on the basic issue of whether Scotland becomes independent or remains a devolved part of the UK.

I have written previously on the so called Devo Max proposal and why it should not form part of this referendum. In short, if it was to be included then so should many other conceivable options, leading to a vastly complicated process. And any form of devolution that might be proposed is, by basic definition, simply a variation on the option of staying within the UK.

But Alex Salmond, typically, is keeping his options open.

This paper may be at heart a legalistic one, setting out arrangements and drafting legislation. The matter at hand however is a political one. And it may well be that the First Minister would be happy to see an enhanced devolution settlement with more powers for Holyrood as a consolation prize should independence not be secured.

He cannot say that though, can he? To do so would risk being accused of lacking conviction in his ability to persuade the Scottish people of the case for independence. So he instead says that he will include a question on Devo Max if it has “sufficient support”, however that is defined. If it is the will of the people …

But is the single question proposed actually a loaded one? The Electoral Commission previously rejected a similar form of wording from Nick Clegg for the AV referendum that would have changed the voting system. The Commission in that case ruled that a “Do you agree …” type of question was too leading. It suggests the way to answer rather than laying out options.

There has also been some discussion on the precise wording of the question, and particularly the fact that it does not mention that independence means leaving the UK. I’m sure it’s no accident that the proposed form of words doesn’t even mention the United Kingdom. But would it not be clearer if it did? This issue is sure to be a focus for more discussion between the two governments, and the Electoral Commission will also have a view in time.

Many of the technical requirements for running the referendum – Returning Officers, counting procedures, spending limits – are, not surprisingly, in line with current and established practice. But there are a couple of changes floated for discussion.

The idea of holding the election on a Saturday rather than the traditional Thursday is suggested as a means to increase turnout. There will be pros and cons to this but I’m not convinced that there is a case for a change. And it has been pointed out that the Western Isles would probably refuse to count into a Sunday morning after a Saturday vote, thus delaying the final result!

Eligibility to vote in the referendum has been in the news recently. The paper suggests using the normal electoral register and therefore a residency qualification – only those registered as living in Scotland can vote and not ex-pats, which many are arguing for.

I’m very much in favour of the franchise being limited to those actually on the electoral register in Scotland. This is the norm for every other kind of election and referendum and to do anything else gets complex. Do we include anyone born in Scotland but living elsewhere? Anyone who used to live in Scotland? Anyone who might be moving to Scotland soon? Those with a Scottish granny, as is used in eligibility for national football teams?

No, let’s keep things clear and simple. Residents in Scotland will vote on the future governance of the country.

The one change to the normal electoral rules proposed is a lowering of the voting age from the usual 18 to 16. This can be seen as a means of engaging young people in the political process or a cynical move to include more probable Yes votes (if polls are to be believed), depending on your point of view.

There may well be a case for lowering the voting age from 18. But I think that should be discussed at another time rather than as part of a referendum process. There should be one age at which you become a part of the voting public, and to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the referendum but not at any other elections which might be held around the same time makes little sense to me.

These then are the key issues on which the Scottish Government is seeking views. Whatever you may think of their proposals, or indeed of the merits of independence or remaining within the UK, I would urge you to have your say. It is our future that will be debated and voted on after all.

And the sooner we get the technicalities out of the way, the real debate can begin.

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We Take Care Of Our Own

We Take Care Of Our Own in the opening track and lead single from the soon to be released Bruce Springsteen album, Wrecking Ball.

Talk of the new album has been that it is an angry record and one that has a focus on economic justice. Typical Springsteen territory then, for those who know his work well. And at exactly the moment when such a focus is most needed: not just an American election year but a time when major decisions need to be taken about the future economic direction of so many countries.

We Take Care Of Our Own is an American song. But its message is one that strikes a chord on this side of the Atlantic too. And the message is not the obvious positive one that you might take from the title, or even from the chorus:

“We take care of our own/ Wherever this flag’s flown/ We take care of our own.”

No, there is an irony in Bruce’s words. Just as Born In The USA was an angry song misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem, this is a call for justice rather than a description of a glorious modern day America. Because clearly, as in this country at present, there are many people who are not being taken care of by their country and their government.

In the song, Springsteen describes the current America: one where “The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone”. And there isn’t any help coming any time soon; “There ain’t no one hearing the bugle blown.”

He then pleads for attention to be given to the problems of the unseen poor. “Where’re the eyes with the will to see?/ Where are the hearts that run over with mercy?” Just where is the compassion to deal with the problems?

But this is not a call for welfare, for hand outs. It’s a plea for jobs: “Where’s the work that’ll set my hands, my soul free?” The blue collar message is startlingly simple. Give us jobs and we will look after our own. And it is a message that even many on the right will agree with: work leads to self-respect.

The most important line in the song is Springsteen’s return to an oft used theme: The Promise. This is Springsteen’s description of the bargain that stands at the heart of the USA, where citizens will work hard and play their part in return for a decent standard of living and a good life for them and their families. But he has made clear over many years that The Promise has been broken.

“Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” he asks.

The latter part of the line is a reference to a song called America The Beautiful. (America! America! God shed His grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea.) So the problem is not just all across the geography of America, it also refers to the brotherhood of the nation. Broken America?

At a time when so many families are struggling to find work, Springsteen clearly stands on their side. He wants the government, those with the power, to intervene, to make a difference. He wants them to take care of everyone in the country and to repair The Promise.

It has been suggested that there is another way to read the song. If we take the chorus to mean that the rich take care of their own while ignoring the plight of the poor then we get a slightly different meaning. One in which bankers pay themselves big bonuses while others struggle to eat. Where the city has money but the country doesn’t.

But whichever way these few words are interpreted, the sentiment is similar. There is no economic justice in a land where the rich get richer while the poor suffer. And that’s exactly where the song applies to the current day UK just as much as it does to the current day USA.

Are we all in it together, as our government likes to tell us? Do we take care of our own? Or has The Promise, the social contract if you will, been broken here too? In a land where unemployment is rising while top pay rockets it is hard to draw any conclusion other than that it has. The impact of public sector cuts has led to both unemployment and the closure of vital services just when they are needed the most.

Bruce Springsteen is a proud American who writes about life in the USA. His call for economic justice though is just as necessary in our country as it is in his own.

But who is making that call on this side of the pond?

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A Clear Decision: Yes or No

There has been much discussion of a variety of points relating to the Scottish referendum in the past week – who will run it, who will oversee it, who will be entitled to vote and when will it take place? But the very basic issue that must be settled is the question itself.

Exactly what will Scots who go into the polling stations come Referendum Day be asked to put their cross against?

My view is that we should stick to the one fundamental question that divides opinion: should Scotland become independent or should we remain within the UK?

Referenda work best when testing basic positions on fundamental questions of great importance. And the view of the SNP has always been that Scots should be given this very elementary choice. Even now, newspapers report that most of the SNP Group in the Scottish Parliament favours this one clear question.

There are many who would like to see a third option on the ballot paper: a proposed new settlement involving greater powers for the Scottish Parliament within the framework of the UK. This has variously been described as Devo Max and Independence Lite – horrible marketing inspired terms that have yet to be described in detail. Devo Max also differs from Devo Plus, and probably from other versions too.

Indeed no less a figure that Canon Kenyan Wright, former chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, has argued for a third option to be included in the referendum. His argument is that not to include it would disenfranchise those who would vote for this solution.

I disagree with the Canon on two grounds. Firstly, Devo Max (or Devo Medium, Lite, whatever) is simply a variation on a No vote. By basic definition it involves renegotiating the devolution settlement and that can only happen if Scotland remains within the UK.

And secondly, if we were to include this option in the referendum we should also include every other conceivable option on the ballot paper too. After all, if it is wrong to disenfranchise those who believe in Devo Max it must surely be equally wrong to do the same to those with other differing opinions.

Within those who are going to vote for independence there are many who would like to see Scotland as an EU member and also those who argue that this would be sacrificing some of its independence, so we should eschew Brussels. Should both of these options be available?

Probable No voters will include those who want extra powers for the Scottish Government, those who are happy with the existing arrangement and even some who would rather see our Parliament dissolved entirely. Should the ballot paper include all of these possible choices?

Let’s keep things simple. Out or in. Independence or UK. Yes or No.

How would a multi option referendum work anyway? Three options and pick one? Three options and rate them 1,2,3? Or two separate questions that might result in a contradictory outcome?

No, let’s just remember the old maxim KISS: keep it simple, stupid.

The aftermath of the referendum will be a good time to take a proper look at how we are governed, whatever the outcome might be. A Yes vote would clearly lead to a conversation involving the negotiation of a settlement and the establishment of all of the trappings of an independent country.

But a No vote too should lead to a proper debate about the future governance of the UK. How about a proper Constitutional Convention to come up with a coherent blueprint for the future? A real, written Constitution to replace the bits and pieces of statute, treaty and convention that form the so called unwritten version.

Personally I would start by getting rid of the monarchy, but I know that’s not a majority view (yet!). So let’s set out exactly what a monarch’s powers and obligations are. Then let’s get rid of the House of Lords and replace it with a proper, fully elected second chamber. We would need to define the separation of roles and exact powers of this body compared with those of the lower house. And let’s change the name from the House of Commons while we’re at it.

We then come to the four components of the UK. The relationship between each one and the centre has to be defined. Should we have a more federal structure or one with largely devolved powers in each? Agreeing the role of England is the often forgotten part of this equation. It may be the largest of the four parts by a long way, but it is still just one of the four elements that make up the UK.

That’s an awful lot of ground to cover, and whatever was finally agreed would need to be ratified in some fashion by people of the UK. But the end result would be a set of structures fit for a modern democracy. Surely that’s a goal worth spending some time over?

If a bunch of men in Philadelphia could spend the summer of 1787 coming up with the US constitution, why can’t we, with all of the modern advantages that we have, do something similar in the 21st century?

 

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Cameron’s Referendum Gamble

David Cameron has blundered into the ongoing argument over the timing of a Scottish independence referendum, threatening to set a time limit within which one must take place before backing off.

Talk from the UK government was of “ending uncertainty”, of “clarification”, of “calling the SNP’s bluff”, and a statement will be made today to clarify the position. But will this intervention, or interference as the SNP is calling it, backfire?

First Minister Alex Salmond has repeatedly said that the referendum will be called in the second half of the current Parliament, with speculation that the Bannockburn anniversary in June 2014 is his preferred date. That gives him an additional two years to build from a position where around a third of Scots voters are thought to favour independence to, he hopes, a clear majority.

Cameron clearly feels that he can best defend the UK by pushing for a quick poll before this can happen. But can Salmond persuade Scots who do not currently support his position that this is exactly the sort of English Tory attempt to dictate to Scotland that independence would stop? That’s the gamble that the Prime Minister has taken.

Given the unpopularity of the Tory party in Scotland, the last thing that other pro-union parties would want is the Prime Minister to get too involved in matters that many people believe should be decided in Scotland. Alex Salmond however will relish a position where he can be seen to stand up to the coalition government on Scotland’s behalf.

A note on the legalities of the matter.

Power for public bodies in the UK stems from legislation and works in a top down fashion. Tiers of government generally have the power to do exactly what the legislation establishing them allows them to do. (This is a little simplistic I know, but it is pretty accurate in general terms. I’m not writing a thesis on government here.)

Local authorities, for example, have a duty to do certain things, like provide schools, and are allowed by statute to do others if they choose. But they cannot operate beyond the list of powers that they are given.

When the Scottish Parliament was established, things were set up in exactly the opposite fashion. It was allowed to act in all areas except those that were specifically reserved to Westminster, which include defence, foreign affairs, welfare and, crucially, constitutional matters.

So, technically, the Scottish Parliament cannot decide to run a referendum that could lead to Scottish independence. Only Westminster could do that.

But, as the SNP has pointed out, in practical terms could the UK Government conceivably ignore a referendum result that went in favour of independence?

There is a legislative method by which Westminster can grant the Scottish Parliament additional powers for a time limited period. And this is the mechanism that Cameron now wants to use. He will give the ability to run a binding referendum, but may set conditions in doing so.

OK, technicalities over. Back to the politics.

Another crucial matter that has still to be decided is the format of a referendum. Most times referenda are formed around a single clear question with a yes or no answer. But it is possible that there could be a third option: Scotland to remain part of the UK but to have far greater powers to raise and spend money. This is generally known as either independence lite or devolution max.

If Cameron has his way there will only be two options: independence or the status quo. He, and many others who oppose independence, believe that this is the fundamental issue and that a referendum should therefore offer a clear choice on the issue.

But while Salmond would clearly like full independence it may also be in his interests to have a fall back option of more power for the government that he heads. It is likely that one of these two options would come out ahead, meaning that he wins on some level. (Let’s leave any discussion of how you decide which option wins in a three question vote for another time).

Back in the days when a Scottish Assembly (as it was initially envisaged) was just a campaigning aim there was a discussion about how it might affect the SNP. There were Nationalists who backed the campaign, believing that some powers for Scotland were better than nothing, and those who opposed it, arguing that it had to be independence or nothing.

I remember many in the Labour Party arguing that the successful delivery of devolution would end talk of independence. The Scottish people would be perfectly happy to have some additional powers while remaining part of the UK.

But there were a few who saw what Alex Salmond clearly did: that giving some measure of power to Scotland might whet the appetite for more. The First Minister now believes that he can use devolution as a springboard to independence, building on the support his party currently has to form a majority in favour of separation from the rest of the UK.

There are clearly a number of matters to be decided before any referendum can take place. Who organises it, when does it take place, what options will be on offer and who oversees the process? And it will take a while for these to be resolved.

Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, has been very quiet in the last 24 hours as the Prime Minister has made his intervention. But today he will get his chance, making a House of Commons statement for the government. Perhaps this will clarify things a little, although it is more likely to raise issues for further discussion than to provide the answers.

For now it is unfortunate that debate is focused on the technicalities of exactly how to find out the views of the Scottish people and not on the best possible form of government for our country.

Just what would independence look like? What are the economic arguments? How would an independent country be defended? What currency would it use? How does the international dimension fit? These are the matters we should be debating as a nation.

The sooner the politicians, on all sides, can agree on the mechanisms the better. And then we can concentrate on an informed debate about the real issues surrounding the future governance of Scotland.

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A total of 113.2 million albums were sold in the UK last year – a drop of 5.6% on the 2010 figure of 119.9 million.

Predictably sales of CDs have fallen sharply, from 98.5 million to 86.2 million, and now make up only 76% of the total. The growth in downloading of albums has seen a rise from 21.0 million to 26.6 million, meaning that almost one in every four albums sold is now downloaded.

But Geoff Taylor, the chief executive of the BPI, said reports of the CD’s demise had been greatly exaggerated. “Physical ownership is important to many fans and the CD will be a key element of the market for years to come,” he commented.

A 5% fall in total album sales is perhaps not the worst result, given the current economic conditions and the continuing strength of the illegal download market. But no business can continue to see falls in sales every year and survive.

In contrast, the singles market has undergone a total revolution, with physical formats now accounting for less than 1% of the market.

Singles sales rose for the fourth straight year. Total singles sales increased by 10.0% overall to 177.9m in 2011, with the vast majority (99.3%) sold as digital tracks and bundles.

Perhaps this indicates a more selective buying approach from many consumers? It is, after all, very easy to download individual tracks rather than purchasing complete albums on iTunes and similar sites.

And as many people now use iPods, phones and the like to listen to music the old notion of listening to an album from start to finish is perhaps less common than jumping from track to track. And with the ability to create playlists of your favourite song, or just hit shuffle and let the device decide what to play, this trend may well continue.

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It’s 2012!

Like many other people, my thoughts in January turn to trying to predict the year ahead. It’s never an easy task of course, and one that exposes the writer to risk of later ridicule if he turns out to be well off the mark. But I’m going to assume that the world won’t end in 2012 as some believe and go for it anyway.

Let’s start with sport. Come May, there will be title celebrations in Glasgow and Manchester. That much is fairly obvious given that the titles on both sides of the border look very much like two horse races, but who will take the honours?

Celtic will lift the Scottish title. I know I’m not exactly a neutral observer, but I’m convinced that momentum lies with the green side of the city. Rangers’ financial problems will likely see a January weakening of their already stretched squad and a rather large tax bill expected sometime near the end of the season threatens the very existence of the club. Ally McCoist could go down in history as not only an unsuccessful Rangers manager, but also as the last Rangers manager, at least in its present form.

In England, City may be the favourites but I have a sneaking suspicion that the red side of Manchester might just be the ones to take the title. Come the business end of the season the great experience of Sir Alex in the home straight could be the difference between the two clubs.

Euro 2012 will see Spain seeking to win a third major title in succession and it is hard to see past them. The golden generation of Xabi, Iniesta et al has been all conquering so far and I’m backing them to do it again. The one Spanish weakness may be up front, with Villa injured and Torres off form, but goals in this side come from all over the park. The main challenge will come from a young and improving German side who play exciting football. England? The usual hype, exit and media recriminations for them.

The summer’s other big sporting event is the Olympics, which are being held in London. I added that last bit just in case anyone has managed to avoid every media outlet in the country for the past year and didn’t know that the games are coming to the UK. Look out for a torch procession coming to your town soon.

Home field advantage should mean a good medal haul, especially in the traditionally strong area of the sitting down sports – cycling, rowing, sailing and whatever they do on horseback. The UK will probably do less well in things that involve running and jumping. And it will be very interesting to see how a combined British football team does.

In the political world, David Cameron will hope for a feel good factor from the twin flag waving opportunities provided by the Olympics and by some anniversary relating to Elizabeth of Saxe Coburg and Gotha that involves parades and days off work.

Cameron will be praying that all the Union Jack photo opportunities he will no doubt find will keep people’s minds off other stories, like economic failure, rising unemployment, repeated attacks on the sick and the poor, creeping privatisation of the health service and xenophobic immigration policies.

What of the Lib Dems? Well, Clegg and co are rather stuck at present. They cannot pull out of the coalition as the party would be wiped out in an election. So they will remain locked with the Tories while trying to distance themselves from the more extreme actions of a government of which they are a part. Not a great position to be in – but one entirely of their own making.

Ed Miliband meanwhile will be trying to persuade the public to blame the current government for the mess it is making of things rather than continuing to lay all the problems at the door of the previous one. The economy is always the key issue and at the moment Cameron and co.’s policies are not working yet they retain a strong support in the country. If Labour can’t change this in 2012 they really are in trouble.

Talk is of an offensive that will portray the government as the party of the rich while Labour will present itself as the champions of the “squeezed” middle classes. Which begs the question, who speaks for the poor in British politics? With a battleground that looks like right against far right, where is the left wing?

And talking of right against further right, there will be a presidential election in the USA this year. While the reality of an Obama administration may not have lived up to the over hyped visions of milk and honey presented during the last campaign, the incumbent should win comfortably come November against whichever of the ragtag bunch of contenders the Republicans eventually choose as their candidate.

In Scotland, debate will concentrate on when the long promised SNP independence referendum will take place. Alec Salmond appears to favour the anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn in June 2014 – nothing like stirring it, is there? If he wants to recall a victory over the English, what’s wrong with Wembley in 1977?

Salmond knows that he does not have a majority in favour of independence but will gamble that he can build one over the next two years. Hopefully the debate will concentrate on the real issues of how an independent Scotland would be financed, defended and governed. This must not become a romantic discussion of some oil funded paradise where the sun will always shine and we can all wear kilts and eat shortbread to our hearts’ content. Hard questions will need to be answered if the people of Scotland are to make an informed choice rather than one based on emotional rhetoric.

Alex Salmond has secured a dominant position in Scottish politics at the moment and the job of leading the opposition now falls to my old friend Johann Lamont. She is an astute and experienced politician but has a massive job on her hands. The Labour Party in Scotland is at a low ebb and needs considerable work if it is to regain the trust of the Scottish people.

Scottish Labour has to realise that simply opposing David Cameron and Tory cuts is not the way to win votes in Scottish elections. The party must make a case that it can govern the nation better than the SNP can. It must develop a distinctive programme and sell it to Scotland. Labour cannot rely on gratitude for delivering devolution – it must show that it can make it work.

So those are my thoughts on 2012. A new age of enlightenment, as some interpretations of the Mayan prophesies suggest, seems unlikely. Another hard year of economic gloom, erratic weather and the occasional unexpected good news story is far more likely.

Enjoy 2012 everyone!

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