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The 2015 General election was predicted to be on a knife edge, with the two major parties very close and the Scottish National Party with a large lead north of the border. But that’s not quite how it turned out. It was a long night, and here’s how it all turned out.

Shortly after the polls closed at 10pm the key exit poll was unveiled. Over 20,000 people across the UK had been asked who they actually voted for and the results gave a surprising prediction. The Tories were forecast to gain 316 seats, only just short of an overall majority. Labour was set for only 239 seats and the Lib Dems would be reduced to a mere 10 MPs. In Scotland the SNP was predicted to gain 58 of the 59 seats!

But was the poll accurate? At a UK level the forecast showed a clear Tory win rather than the very close result that all the previous opinion polls had shown. There was a general air of scepticism among most commentators. And in Scotland the expected very good SNP performance was predicted to become a massive victory. Even leading nationalists, including the First Minister, seemed to think it was far too good to be true.

By 10:20pm YouGov was predicting an outcome that seemed more in line with what most people and most commentators would have probably expected. They had the Tories on 284, Labour on 262, SNP on 49 and Lib Dems on 31.

It would be many hours before there was a clear idea of which was closer to the actual outcome of the election.

The first real result came in at 10:48pm, which is an incredibly quick count. Labour held the safe seat of Sunderland South with an increased majority and UKIP pushed the Tories into third. Sunderland Central and Sunderland West came next with both showing increased Labour majorities and strong UKIP showings. No great surprises were to come for a considerable time, but a pattern of Lib Dem collapse and UKIP increased votes appeared to develop in England.

In Scotland it gradually became certain that the SNP would indeed make large numbers of gains right across the country. Leads over Labour in west and central Scotland and over the Lib Dems in the Highlands were being widely reported from counts, with several big names and long standing MPs apparently heading for defeat.

Several stunning Scottish results began to come through just after 2am. The SNP gained Kilmarnock with a whopping 26% swing from Labour and Douglas Alexander was ousted from his Paisley seat on a 27% swing. These massive gains were to become the norm as seats in Dundee, Dunbartonshire, Clackmannanshire, Falkirk and Fife all went from Labour to the SNP in the space of ten frantic minutes with the television pundits trying to keep up. Dunbartonshire East was slightly different – this time it was Lib Dem junior minister Jo Swinson who was beaten by the SNP.

More SNP victories followed and at 3:10am came the next big scalp, with Labour’s Scottish leader Jim Murphy losing East Renfrewshire to the Nationalists on a 24% swing. And the gains kept coming across what had been known as the Labour heartlands in the west and central belt. Even seats in Glasgow followed the trend. The notion that Labour might lose every single one of the seven seats in the city would once have been laughed at. Now it was fast becoming a reality. Indeed the Nationalists took the first 38 seats to be declared before Alastair Carmichael held his Orkney and Shetland seat for the Lib Dems.

By 4:00am all attention seemed to have been focused on Scotland so far. Yet little of great note was actually happening in the rest of the UK. Labour had made just six gains, missing out on several target seats – and the Tories were also two seats up on 2010. Meanwhile the Lib Dems vote continued to crumble, seemingly splitting between the Conservatives and UKIP. Several of their seats had already gone with the likes of Simon Hughes and Ed Davey among those defeated. And worse was to come when Vince Cable lost Twickenham to the Tories, becoming the most senior minister to fall.

UKIP’s Douglas Carswell retained his Clacton seat, but it appeared he would be the only one from his party to win. Despite increasing its share of the vote across England it appeared that there would be no more victories with several targets missed – although leader Nigel Farage’s result in Thanet South had still to come.

North of the border, Labour finally won a seat at 4:27am when Ian Murray retained Edinburgh South. A return of a single MP from 48 seats declared was hardly much to celebrate though. The Tories will have felt relief when David Mundell held the single seat they were defending in Dumfriesshire, albeit with a much reduced majority.

As the night went on some big political names had mixed results. Mayor of London Boris Johnson won his safe seat, as expected, to return to the ranks of MPs. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg held on to his seat in Sheffield with a small majority, but one of his predecessors Charles Kennedy and cabinet minister Danny Alexander both fell to the SNP. Employment minister Esther McVey was one of the few senior Tories to fall, defeated by Labour in Wirral West.

Somewhere around 5:45am the Conservatives overtook Labour on seats won. The combination of Labour losses in Scotland and its failure to pick up target seats in England allied to a total Lib Dem collapse seemed to indicate that the exit poll wouldn’t be too far off the mark after all. With around 200 seats still to declare it appeared that only the scale of the Tory victory remained to be decided. Just how close to a majority would Cameron and co get? Was an absolute majority actually possible – beyond what even the exit poll had predicted?

By the time those who didn’t spend the night in front of a tv screen were preparing breakfast the Tories had taken a couple more seats from the Lib Dem in the South West of England. This made a Tory government with a small overall majority almost certain. So all of the talk of negotiations and uncertainty appears to have been for nothing, with David Cameron emerging in a better position than he had dared hope. He can look forward to planning a government without the need for any other party’s input.

At 7:25am the final Scottish result came in, with Lib Dem Michael Moore joining the ranks of the defeated. He actually fell to third place, behind not only the victorious SNP but the Tories as well. This means that the SNP have secured 56 seats in Scotland, leaving Labour, Conservative and Lib Dems with just a single seat each. This is a better result than the SNP could have ever expected, with a 50.0% share of the vote secured.

By 7:30am almost 600 of the 650 seats had declared. Things slowed down, althouhh there were a handful of very interesting seats still to be decided. Brighton Pavilion again returned Caroline Lucas as the sole Green MP with an increased majority, largely at the expense of yet another Lib Dem collapse. UKIP’s Mark Reckless lost out to the Tories, the party he left last year.

Perhaps the biggest casualty of the night was to be Ed Balls, who lost out by just 422 to the Conservatives in his Yorkshire seat after a recount. Another big name, UKIP’s Nigel Farage had to wait until 10:30am before discovering he had failed to take Thanet South from the Conservatives. This result will clearly have meant a lot to David Cameron.

Just before 11am, a full thirteen hours after the polls close, the Conservatives took Devon West, making a total of 323 seats. Taking out the Sinn Fein MPs who won’t take their seats and the Speaker, that numbers gave a theoretical majority to the Tories.

So with just a dozen or so results in far flung constituencies outstanding the final result seemed clear.

The Conservatives would secure a majority on 37& of the popular vote to Labour’s 31%. A lead of 6% or so, much more than any of the polls predicted. A great night for the SNP ended with 56 MPs, compared with just 6 going into this election. UKIP did very well in terms of share of the vote, attracting 3.8 million votes or almost 13% of the total cast – although that only equated to a single MP.

The Liberal Democrats were punished in brutal fashion for their backing of David Cameron’s party in the coalition. The party lost more than half of its votes, securing just 8% and being reduced from more than 50 MPs to single figures.

So what now for the defeated parties? There are bound to be calls for inquests, changes and resignations. The consequence of the Liberal Democrats’ participation in the coalition is a disastrous set of results, almost being wiped out and Nick Clegg isn’t expected to stay long as leader. Labour’s failure is also likely to see Ed Miliband resign, leaving what could be a very interesting contest to replace him. And in Scotland Jim Murphy’s position must surely be untenable. This could yet be an election that results in much more dramatic change than was expected.

David Cameron will now lead a government with a small majority, meaning whipping and party discipline will be very important. He will face an opposition made up of two dispirited parties and a large block of new Scottish Nationalist MPs who are sure to have plenty to say. Scotland’s place in the union will remain a big issue in the political short term.

The final outcome of this election may not be what too many people expected, but the new House of Commons is unlikely to be a dull place. David Cameron has a majority but he will govern a country that retains deep political divisions.

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Je Suis Charlie

Je suis Charlie.

This statement would have meant nothing to anyone not called Charlie until recently. Indeed, few in this country would ever have heard of Charlie Hebdo. Yet now the French satirical magazine stands at the centre of a growing debate on where the limits to the right of freedom of speech should stand.

And the Charlie Hebdo affair may yet come to a court somewhere. The Saudi Arabia-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is reportedly planning to sue the magazine following its publication of a front cover depicting the Prophet Mohamed.

There are, of course, already limits to freedom of speech. Not just the theoretical one about refraining from shouting fire in a crowded theatre either. Libel and slander laws limit what can be said or written about another person. The Official Secrets Act bans the passing of classified or sensitive materials. Obscenity laws outlaw the use of certain words or phrases. And hate speech, such as racism or sexism, is illegal too.

But what about speech that may be legal yet others may find offensive? That’s the heart of the current issue: should a cartoon be banned if some find it offensive? Or does the right to freedom of speech take precedence?

Freedom of religious belief and practice, or of the absence of religious belief, are fundamentals in free societies. Anyone can choose to believe whatever they want, whether others agree with it or not. Worship a single god or multiple deities. Believe that Adam and Eve populated the world or that we were all brought to earth on a fleet of alien spaceships. Argue that the world is flat or a large disc resting on the backs of four giant elephants supported by a giant turtle. That’s your right.

(OK, that last one comes from Terry Pratchett’s books rather than a religion, but you get my drift …)

But no idea or belief system should stand above criticism. Freedom of expression is also a basic right. And so all opinions, ideologies and theologies, whether views are social, political or religious, can and should be challenged. The alternative is totalitarianism, where the rulers decide what is truth and no one dares to disagree.

Many, but not all, Muslims believe that showing a depiction of Mohammed is forbidden. That’s their right. And all followers of the particular parts of Islam with that belief will probably refrain. But surely the rest of us are not to be forced to follow the rules of one religion? Surely non Muslims have the right to make up our own minds?

This is the area where freedoms conflict and theoretical niceties can become complex in the shades of grey that exist in the real world. Where one freedom may be argued to conflict with another’s right.

Yet I would argue that taking away the right to offend would in fact curb and not widen religious freedom. Imagine if no religion was able to publish anything that another group of people might find offensive. Every area where there is a theological disagreement with any other religion would be off limits for a start. And would that leave anything at all that was uncontroversial enough to be published?

“Jesus isn’t the son of god, but he is a prophet,” says the Muslin, offending the Christian. ”Transubstantiation is symbolic not real,” says the Protestant offending the Roman Catholic. “There are no gods at all,” says the atheist, offending all of the theists.

Should these statements be banned because they might cause offence to some? Well, if you start banning cartoons like the Charlie Hebdo one then that’s where you end up. Any statement that might offend followers of any religion would be censored.

Freedom of speech is a right we take for granted here in the UK. We should think ourselves lucky because it doesn’t exist in every society. Look what happened to the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – flogged for daring to challenge the religious leaders in his country.

And so we should think very carefully before we set any more limits on what can be said or published.

 

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Referendum Reflections

It’s almost two weeks now since Scotland said a loud No to independence. It seemed wiser to reflect on the campaign and its outcome after a little time had passed instead of in the heated aftermath, so here are some thoughts.

Firstly, let’s put the final result to bed. At 55.3% to 44.7% or 2,001,926 to 1,617,989 it was a clear victory for the No campaign. Alex Salmond accepted that on the night, although some of his supporters are still making conspiracy theory noises about a fix. It would do them far more credit if they simply came out of denial, accepted the defeat and moved on.

And it is also a bit much for those who have told us for long enough that 50% + 1 was a clear mandate for independence to see a 55% vote against as anything other than decisive. For those who talked repeatedly of the sovereignty of the Scottish people to question their verdict now. For those who supposedly prize self determination to do anything other than abide by the settled will of the electorate.

I can accept that many are, of course, upset at the result. It’s never easy to take a loss after working hard for a cause over months or years. But some of the language used from the Yes side about those who simply chose to use their vote in a manner they disagree with has been quite shocking. I refuse to repeat the range of epithets here, although I’m sure anyone who inhabits the world of social media will know exactly what I mean.

The two years of the referendum campaign has been a divisive period in Scottish political life. But then a referendum by its very nature is a polarising affair, with only two diametrically opposed outcomes possible. And with a Yes and a No campaign there were always going to be clashes in style as well as in content.

Did the Yes side run the better campaign, as seems to be the conventional wisdom? There is probably some truth in that. It was a different style of campaigning, largely community based in an era of mass media communications. But there was often a sense of campaigners believing in their own hype, caught up in their own rhetoric, and of gatherings that were more about preaching to the converted than winning over the undecided. One nationalist blogger described this as “what we did remarkably well during the #indyref campaign – Yes folk sitting in meetings with other Yes folk agreeing with each other.”

But it is far too simplistic to label one campaign as positive and one as negative. The Yes side put forward a proposition with plenty of emotional appeal but also with massive flaws. And it certainly lost some key arguments during the campaign. The No campaign attacked these inherent weaknesses as it had to do, although I would argue that its balance between questioning the opposition and setting out its own case was wrongly weighted.

From the start of the campaign it was clear that Better Together was not campaigning for the status quo, but rather for a continuation of the devolution process. More powers for the Scottish Parliament were always on the agenda. But the key pledge eventually made by the party leaders should have come earlier in the campaign.

I don’t believe that it was a panic measure. Rather it was something I always expected to happen at some stage. And there is a delicate balance in a campaign between making a big announcement too early and reducing its influence on the result or leaving it too late and being open to a charge of last minute nerves. I think the Better Together campaign and the individual parties involved handled the announcement badly by delaying it far too long – and they will be very relieved that the error was not ultimately a fatal one.

The promises made in the pledge must now be delivered, and I do expect more powers to be devolved on tax raising and spending. It is entirely right that the parties are held to account on this issue – although to hear Alex Salmond talking about a lack of progress on the Sunday morning a mere 48 hours after the result felt just a little much. Lord Smith’s commission will produce a “command paper”, the first part of the process, by the end of October and that will set out the terms of the next stage in the debate.

So the end result of this referendum should be a stronger Scottish Parliament within the UK, as indeed the majority of Scots wanted. The irony remains that the party that will still be governing the devolved Scotland is the one that doesn’t want devolution. And that should make the politics of the next Scottish election in 2016 look very different – although clearly the wider political landscape will first be set by next year’s UK general election.

In the shorter term, we will have a new First Minister following Alex Salmond’s imminent departure. It appears certain that his hand picked successor Nicola Sturgeon will take over, and it remains to be seen whether there will be any amendments to policy or governance style as a result. It seems unlikely, although there may be some further changes to the top team as she looks to the future.

What has undoubtedly changed is the framework of the whole debate about devolution within the UK. The agenda is not now just about how Scotland is governed. Rather there is a wider debate about exactly how a union can operate in a situation where one of its component parts is so much larger than the others. And it has always made sense to me to look at the bigger picture. To seek to create a better and more democratic union rather than walking away from it and starting again.

The referendum process has been a long and bruising one. It has achieved a higher level of political interest and debate than we have seen in many years, as evidenced by the record turnouts in many areas. And that can only be good for our democracy.

Let’s hope that the same energy is now focussed on the positive task of further enhancing our devolution.

 

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It’s all over – and Scotland has decided to remain within the UK.

After 31 of 32 local authority areas had declared their results, only 4 had voted for independence with the remainder voting against leaving the union. In percentage terms, the vote stands at 55.4% No to 44.6% Yes. The one remaining result, from the Highlands Council area, will make very little difference to the final figures.

Analysis of what this result means, why it happened and how Scotland moves forward from here will come very soon. For now, let’s recap on exactly how the result developed.

After a very long campaign it was also to be a long night for those waiting to find out the future of Scotland. The polling stations closed at 10pm but it was to be almost another four hours before the first result was declared.

So the initial period of the night was actually pretty dull. Unlike a general election where there are exit polls and key marginal to discuss, this was a new situation. There were no potential swings, no gains and losses, no changes from the last time … because there was no last time.

Politicians from both campaigns anxiously tried to sound confident, but not overconfident, while actually knowing next to nothing. An on the day poll form YouGov predicted 54% support for a No vote, but how accurate would that turn out to be?

The first real information of the referendum results night came after midnight with turnouts of 84% in Orkney and 89% in Clackmannanshire being announced. The high levels were expected of course, but who would it favour?

The race to be first of the 32 Council areas to declare a result was of interest to some. The Western Isles was hampered by fog, causing some ballot boxes to take to the seas rather than being flown to the count. And there were delays elsewhere too. Although the Highlands was always expected to be a late result, an accident on the A9 added a large delay to that count, while in Dundee two separate fire alarms caused the counting hall to be evacuated.

The first result came from Clackmannanshire at 1:27am. This was expected to be a very good area for the Yes campaign, but there was to be an early shock. The No campaign secured a majority with 53.8% of the vote. The Wee County is of course a very small area, and this result was not expected to have a massive impact on the final national vote. But it was a blow for the Yes campaign.

More turnout figures came in before any more results. 75% in Glasgow seemed low in comparison to many, although with 50% being common for the city in many recent elections it was actually pretty good. And Stirling, East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire all came in at over 90%.

Orkney was second to declare at 2:01am. The expected heavy victory for No was duly delivered with a 67.2% share. Shetland came in 40 minutes later and once more the likely No win came with 63.7%. And the Western Isles was next, announcing a narrower No win with a share of 53.4% just after 3am. This one was another blow for Yes, which had been predicted to win in Eilean Siar, as the islands are officially known.

The first West of Scotland result came from Inverclyde at 3:33am. In another area where the Yes campaign would have expected to come out ahead there was disappointment, although very narrowly with No polling 50.1%. Renfrewshire followed with a larger No majority, a share of 52.8%

Dundee provided the Yes side’s first victory of the night, and the 57.4% vote for independence was much as expected. The city was expected to give the best result for the Yes campaign and the victory brought the overall national totals close again. And another Yes win in West Dunbartonshire with 54% meant that the two sides were almost even with 8 of 32 results declared.

But three quick No victories just after 4am in Midlothian with 56.3%, East Lothian at 61.7% and Stirling at 59.8% soon moved the picture back in the No side’s favour. And another No win with 53.5% in Falkirk, an area where the Yes campaign had high hopes, reinforced the trend. Yet more No victories followed quickly in Angus (56.3%), Aberdeen City (58.6%), Dumfries & Galloway (65.7%), East Renfrewshire (63.2%) and East Dunbartonshire (61.2%).

North Lanarkshire bucked the trend with a narrow Yes win (51.1%) but its neighbour South Lanarkshire soon after declared a large No win (54.7%), as did Perth and Kinross (60.2%)

Glasgow was perhaps the most eagerly awaited result of the night, having the largest electorate, and it declared just before 5am. The Yes campaign were perhaps narrow favourites and came out ahead with 53.5% of the vote, a good majority of some 25,000 votes.

But that high point for the independence campaign was followed by a string of defeats that effectively confirmed the overall national result. Scottish Borders (66.6%), North Ayrshire (51.0%), South Ayrshire (57.9%), East Ayrshire (52.8%), Edinburgh (61.1%), Argyle & Bute (58.5%) and Aberdeenshire (60.4%), all voted No. West Dunbartonshire was the one bright spot for Yes, giving a fourth victory with a 54% Yes vote

At 6:06am the Fife declaration took the No campaign over the winning line with a 55.1% share of its vote. With two council areas still to declare, the result was official and independence had been rejected.

Moray declared slightly after this with a 57.6% No vote, leaving only the much delayed Highlands result outstanding.

So around 3.5 million people have voted, a stunning turnout of 85%. A clear No was the outcome, and that has been accepted by both sides as a legitimate expression of Scotland’s self determination.

Now we move on to obtaining more powers for our devolved parliament. This was never a result that would result in the status quo. There was always going to be change.

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One Month Until I Vote No

The longest referendum campaign in history is nearing its conclusion. In just one month, on September 18, millions of Scots will finally head for the polling stations after over two years of debate. And I hope they vote to continue our country’s devolution journey by rejecting the call for independence from the United Kingdom.

I have been behind the devolution movement since the days of the Campaign for A Scottish Assembly in the 1980s. I backed the Scottish Constitutional Convention that brought the country together to plan for our own devolved parliament. (Well, brought everyone together bar the SNP who refused to take part.) I voted Yes Yes in the 1997 referendum that secured a Scottish Parliament with tax varying powers. And I was delighted when the Scotland Act was passed and the Scottish Parliament finally elected in 1999.

I’ve seen our Scottish Parliament gain more powers in the years since its establishment too. And I hope to see the devolution journey continue with a No vote next month followed by the further strengthening of our Parliament within the United Kingdom thereafter.

Let’s be clear. A No vote next month does not indicate support for the status quo. Much as the nationalists would have us believe, it does not mean support for the current UK coalition government or its policies. And it does not mean a desire to end the devolution process.

I’ve written before about my wish for a UK constitutional convention to review and modernise our political structures. An elected second house to replace the anachronistic House of Lords. More powers for the Scottish parliament. And more freedom for our local authorities to raise funds and to act independently of any government, in the best interests of local people. Ideally I would throw abolition of the monarchy and full separation of churches and state into the mix too. But that’s perhaps for another day.

The No campaign in this referendum took the name Better Together for very good reasons. It encapsulates the positive constitutional case for the union. All of the constituent parts of this small island working together for peace and freedom. A single market without boundaries. Political, financial and administrative institutions that benefit from the economies of scale and greater stability than multiple individual governments would have. The various countries and peoples continuing to have a strength when acting together that is far more than the sum of the individual parts. Yet with significant powers devolved to our Scottish Parliament, controlling much of what happens in our country, and with strong local authorities that provide localised services in partnership with our communities.

This is the political framework that the UK can become. But Scotland will only be a part of it if we reject the nationalists’ calls for Scotland to leave the UK and stand alone.

Back in November 2013 the Scottish Government published its Independence White Paper. The document it called its “blueprint for independence”. The 670 page tome that we had always been promised would answer every conceivable query we might have.

But it failed to address even some of the very basic questions. It was full of emotional rhetoric yet lacking in significant detail. It made a series of assertions about the future that took vague hopes and overoptimistic assumptions then tried to give them the stamp of truth. And anyone who disagreed was simply wrong. No matter their expertise on the subject, be it the economy, Europe or taxation, the nationalists simply know better. No debate, just repeated declarations that they and only they were right.

The currency debate has come back to the fore following Alex Salmond’s failure to answer Alastair Darling’s questions in the first televised debate between the campaign leaders. The Yes campaign’s repeated avowal that a currency union would be formed between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK – despite the insistence of all three major UK political parties that they would not sign up – makes no sense. And the failure to give any alternative plan is seen by many undecided voters as a key weakness in the Yes case.

Indeed there are even those on the Yes side of the argument who see a currency union, where another country would set interest rates and the agreement of all partners would be required to tax and spending plans, as at odds with any notion of real independence. They would prefer an independent country to establish its own currency – a lengthy and expensive process that involves building up foreign currency reserves.

The White Paper also failed to tell us what the costs of setting up the apparatus of the new state would be, and what additional annual running costs would be required to duplicate the services currently provided in Scotland by hundreds of UK departments, agencies and public bodies. Significantly, the figures have still not been revealed in the many months since its publication.

And the White Paper failed to address any of the economic risks of becoming a small independent country rather than part of a larger union. Because the nationalist mindset simply cannot see risk or uncertainty. Everything will be better after independence. Everything will be negotiated exactly the way they assert and to the timescales they demand. And no one will disagree.

The Yes campaign repeatedly accuses the No side of being negative in what has been an ill-tempered and at times fractious debate. But it is the function of those arguing for independence to make the case and for those against to ask the difficult questions. To point out the flaws in the Yes argument. To seek clarification where it is required. It is a strange campaign for major change that doesn’t expect to be challenged. Or that refuses to answer questions with anything other than vague assertions or insults.

And, somewhat ironically, there have been many scare stories from the Yes side. We are repeatedly told that a No vote would lead to powers being taken from Scotland, to budgets being slashed in some sort of retributive act, to the privatisation of the NHS. Without any shred of evidence or even an argument of course – just yet more baseless assertions.

The decision that Scotland’s voters will take on 18th September is the most important democratic decision that the country will ever have made. A vote for independence would set Scotland on a path with many risks and pitfalls along the way. The ending of a union that has lasted more than 300 years would divide friends and families, create economic instability and risk Scotland’s place within many international bodies.

The alternative is clear. Let’s finally end the talk of separation and move onto a new discussion on how we can make the union work better for all of the people of the United Kingdom.

 

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Benjamin Franklin once said that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The former may not have changed much since his time, but tax systems certainly have.

And, here in the UK, it appears that the notion of merging Income Tax and National Insurance is back on the agenda. The government has been investigating the proposal for some time now, and although no conclusion has been reached, it cannot be entirely ruled out.

There would be some merit in combining what are two very similar payments made directly from income. It would be easier and cheaper to collect, and more transparent. But, as always with apparently simple ideas, the devil can be in the detail.

And anyone who has followed Iain Duncan Smith’s attempts to merge various welfare benefits into a Universal Credit will know that the IT systems involved can be complex and expensive to set up. This also means that long term thinking would be required – spend now to save later. And that is an approach governments are generally not good at. They want quick wins, not benefits for the future.

So how do things work at the moment? Well, assuming you are employed by an employer rather than being self employed, it is usually fairly straightforward. Before you even receive your weekly or monthly wage a slice has been paid to the state in both Income Tax and National Insurance. Complex systems of allowances and varying percentage rates are used to calculate exactly how much is paid. But most people only look at the “bottom line” of the pay slip – how much cash will actually end up in their bank account.

Tax is of course a massive political issue. The link between tax and government spending will always be a key part of any election campaign. Low tax may seem good, but it means lower spending and poorer services. Better public provision is welcomed by many but it needs higher tax to pay for it. And just how should the burden of tax be split between the rich and the not so well off?

Income tax was first introduced in the UK in 1799 and was originally seen as a short term measure to pay for wartime expenditure. It was actually abolished in 1802, only to be reintroduced on several other occasions. But from 1842 it has been a permanent feature of our lives.

National Insurance was first introduced in 1911. The original idea, as the name suggests, was that contributions were to be made by workers to a fund that would then pay out if they were made unemployed. In the early days stamps were purchased and affixed to a card that was kept to prove entitlement to benefit. Paying NI is still often referred to as a stamp. When the 1945 Labour Government established the Welfare State, NI was expanded. But it was not until 1975 that it ceased to be a flat rate paid by all employees and became a percentage of income, collected along with Income Tax.

Currently for most working people the first £10,000 of your annual income is income tax free. After that a standard rate of 20% applies up to an income of £31,865. The rate then goes up to 40% and for income over £150,000 to 45%. The top rate has been much higher in the past – it was 95% for the highest earners at one point.

National Insurance is charged slightly differently. Only the first £7,956 of income requires no payment. The standard rate of 12% applies up to £41,868, but income above this level is only subject to a 2% rate of NI. This much reduced rate on higher incomes means that those on low wages pay a larger proportion than those on high wages.

There are many technical challenges in merging the two systems. How much would be tax free? What would the standard rate be? And how much should higher earners pay? There is also the position on pensioners, who currently pay income tax but not national insurance. That could be solved by giving a higher tax free allowance though.

The politics of the situation is very interesting. The Tories are the ones behind this move and it is natural to be suspicious of their motives. A cut in the amount that the better off pay would of course be a natural political move for them. But would a simpler system not make such a move more obvious? Likewise, were a more progressive government to wish to increase the amount that the most wealthy pay it could be done simply and transparently.

So is this a good idea? Well it certainly merits a close look. Simplification and a reduction in administrative costs are both good drivers. But do these outweigh the initial set up costs and the need to combine two systems of computerised records? There is suspicion that the loss of the Insurance principle would be used to stigmatise those on benefits further – although the notion that welfare payments are handouts rather than a return from a system already paid into is widely seen now. And in truth the insurance principle does not really stand up to scrutiny these days: National Insurance is pretty much a contributing to general government spending rather than a fund that pays out to the sick or the unemployed.

There is then some merit in this idea. And we should not reject it out of hand simply because it comes from the coalition government. There are many on the left who have long argued for the same thing. Designing a system that removes the regressive nature of National Insurance payments would make a lot of sense too.

There will be great debate before such a fundamental change is made. But there could be positives from merging the two tax systems that most workers pay.

 

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Remembering Nelson Mandela

The death of former South African President Nelson Mandela has caused immense sadness all around the world. The iconic leader of the campaign against apartheid and the father of the modern democratic South Africa was one of the towering figures of the past century.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison on the notorious Robbins Island, being freed in 1990 after an international campaign lasting many years. The image of him walking free, fist raised in salute, is one that will live long in the memories of millions. I will never forget standing in the street named after him in Glasgow with thousands of others, watching on as he raised his fist in triumph.

Mandela

Nelson Mandela became radicalised at University in the 1940s and helped to form the youth wing of the African National Congress. He joined the ANC’s ruling National Executive in 1950 and quickly rose through the ranks. A lawyer by profession, Mandela opened his own firm with fellow radical Oliver Tambo, offering a rare black legal service.

An enemy of the white racist government, he was arrested many times. Mandela initially followed a non violent path, but by the mid 1950s he had become convinced that only an armed struggle would end the apartheid regime. In 1961 Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) with Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo. He became chairman and chief organiser of the of the guerrilla group, which was in effect the armed wing of the ANC, carrying out attacks of sabotage against economic targets.

Mandela and others were arrested in 1962 and after the Rivonia Trail, where he and his co-accused were charged with four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. Spending 20 years on Robbins Island, a harsh prison with brutal conditions, Mandela was ill treated and abused, as well as being forced to carry out hard labour, breaking rocks.

As the struggle against apartheid continued, Mandela became an international figure, and the Free Nelson Mandela campaign became known in many countries. A concert organised for Mandela’s 70th birthday in July 1988 at London’s Wembley Stadium received massive publicity for his cause throughout the world.

Eventually economic sanctions and political pressure forced the South African government of FW De Klerk to act and Mandela was released on 11 February 1990. Now a statesman of international repute, Mandela was key to the negotiations that would finally see the dismantling of the hated apartheid state. In 1994 he was elected as President of South Africa. His inauguration was watched by a global audience of over one billion people. The “Long Walk To Freedom”, the title of his autobiography, was complete.

Mandela had only ever planned on serving one term in office as President, and gave his farewell speech on 29 March 1999, after which he retired. But he was to spend five more years in the public eye, still active in championing many liberal causes before ill health finally led to him “retiring from retirement” and leaving public life.

Few world figures held ever been held in greater esteem than Nelson Mandela. The man who led the fight for his people’s freedom, defeated an ingrained and repressive regime and founded a modern democratic nation is a hero to millions. Many have been described as great; Mandela was one of the few who truly deserved the accolade.

A tireless campaigner, Mandela received over 250 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. He will be remembered as the man who ended the racist South African regime and stood up for justice and racial harmony.

Nelson Mandela was a unique figure who came to personify the fight for racial equality, and not just in South Africa. His courage and burning desire to free his people burned brightly and his achievements were immense. There have been very few figures in modern history with the stature of Nelson Mandela, very few who have ever come to mean so much to so many. He will be sadly missed.

 

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