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Scottish Independence, Direct Rule, or a Federal UK?

It seems to me that the UK is increasingly unstable. Boris Johnson regrets devolution. Polls have indicated a majority of Scottish independence, but there is some indications of a reversal.

Reasons why Scots may want to leave the UK include:

Escape from the disastrous Brexit deal and possible readmission to the EU

Escape from ever more dictatorial, corrupt and incompetent government at Westminster

Benefit fully from the wealth of natural resources, especially renewable energy

What an independent Scotland would need:

An independent currency

A foreign ministry

A defence ministry, defence policy and defence force

Two reasons why Westminster government is determined to keep Scotland in the UK

To protect the reputation of the UK

To retain a naval base in Scotland – especially to keep Trident away from England

If support for independence in Scotland grows Boris may be tempted to rein in devolved powers or even declare direct rule. This would doubtless increase support for independence which might be countered by Westminster declaring a state of emergency and arresting key SNP leaders.

A wiser and humbler PM than Boris might go for a federal solution. This was proposed by Baroness Bryan of Partick (Labour), though I have no details. This would involve considering the UK as made  up of 12 parts: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (if it remains in the UK, London and the 8 other English regions. Each part would have its own parliament or assembly and executive. The House of Lords would be replaced by a Senate the majority of whose members would be directly or indirectly elected by the regional assemblies. The remaining senators would be appointed by a Senate appointments commission according to principles agreed by the Senate. The key point is that all devolved powers would be hardwired into a codified and entrenched constitution.

Why does not Starmer support this idea?

 

 

The Energy Charter Treaty Must be Killed

International opposition to this treaty which seriously threatens the Green New Deal and addressing climate change is growing. My purpose in this post is to try to encourage opposition in Britain.

Avaaz have launched a petition at:

https://secure.avaaz.org/campaign/en/energy_charter_treaty_fr_pa/

“As world citizens, we call on you to pull out of the Energy Charter Treaty and stop its expansion to other countries. The treaty is incompatible with the Paris Climate Agreement, and it allows coal, oil and gas corporations to obstruct our transition to a clean energy future. It’s time to disarm fossil fuel firms now, so they can no longer impede urgent climate action and put their interest above our public health and security.”

See also: https://www.politico.eu/article/energy-charter-treaty-threatens-eu-green-deal/  and

https://corporateeurope.org/en/2020/12/busting-myths-around-energy-charter-treaty which exposes the greenwash being put out by the industry lobbies.

The treaty includes the one sided and secretive ‘Investor State Dispute Settlement’ procedure. There is a sunset clause but that has not stopped Italy from withdrawing from the treaty.

 

Is Trident a White Elephant?

I think that most English people accept (perhaps reluctantly), that we need to keep Trident and upgrade the submarines from the Vanguard class to the Dreadnought class. Presumably because they believe that, in spite of the many objections to nuclear deterrents in principle, ai least Trident is a deterrent; it helps to keep us safe. However as far as I can see Trident is not an effective deterrent.

Back in 1968 when the first Polaris submarine was deployed it may have been undetectable, but in the more than 50 years since, technological advances have changed the situation. For some years Russin submarines have not had to relay on sonar (active or passive), but have been able to track others by sensing their wake [1] , and Trident subs on patrol are moving. Furthermore in future the use of swarms of drones is likely to replace manned vessels in tracking submarines [2].

Assuming an enemy (probably Russia) contemplated a nuclear 1st strike against Britain or its interests it would first destroy the Trident submarine on patrol and then launch the nuclear strike before Britain has time to deploy one of the other 3 Trident submarines. Mrs May indicated that she would launch Trident in response to a sufficiently serious non nuclear attack. If such an attack were contemplated the enemy, having knocked out the submarine on patrol, would still have time to find and destroy the remaining 3 submarines before they are ready to launch Trdent.

It is worth noting that the National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 [3] does not examine the question of whether Trident is still an effective deterrent. Annex A classifies Terrorism, Cyber attacks and Major Natural Hazards as Tier 1 threats as against nuclear war , Tier2.

In view of this why does the government insist on upgrading Trident without examining whether it is still a credible deterrent? It gives the public a false sence of security and also allows us to remain in the nuclear club. but does this really enhance our reputation and influence in the world?

In 2015 it was possible to argue that this is the case, see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/28/trident-useless-debate-labour-vote. Now with a botched Brexit and the possible loss of Scotland, I argure we need to be humbler about our place in the world.

References:

[1] https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a28724/submarine-sonar-soks/ <https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a28724/submarine-sonar-soks/> and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SOKS. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SOKS.>

[2] https://cnduk.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Security-not-Trident-report-2.pdf <https://cnduk.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Security-not-Trident-report-2.pdf> page 7,

‘UK will deploy drone squadron after brexit says defence secretary the guardian 11 feb 2019’ https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/11/uk-will-deploy-drone-squadrons-after-brexit-says-defence-secretary-gavin-williamson, ,> and

‘Unmanned Surface Vehicles Successfully Detect & Track Live Submarine’, Unmanned Systems Technology, 31 October 2016, https://www.unmannedsystemstechnology.com/2016/10/liquid-robotics-and-boeing-demonstrate-submarine-tracking-at-unmanned-warrior/

[3] National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-security-strategy-and-strategic-defence-and-security-review-2015, paras 4.63 et seq

[4] ibid Annex A

Scottish Independence – The Question of Defence

This post is not an argument for or against independence, but merely highlights one issue to be considered

In spite of Boris Johnson’s determination to deny Scotland’s call for another independence referendum, he may need to bow to international pressure, especially if the economy continues to go South as a result of Brexit. There is little doubt that Scotland could be economically self sufficient, and (unlike the UK at present) would be a genuine democracy. However there appear to be a couple of issues that have not been much debated.

Craig Murray observes,

“[following independence?]Scotland must be a fully functioning independent nation in two to three years. We need to start now to understand and plan for the physical infrastructure of governance a modern state needs. Just one of the vast gaps at present is the ability for an independent state to interact with other states; that is, after all, what defines the very being of a state. Scotland will need its own foreign ministry. In short time.”

He also argues the case for an independent defence capability,

“I have even seen it suggested that Independent Scotland will not need a foreign ministry, nor a defence ministry, because in these areas it can continue to cooperate with the British state. I should hope that I could forever destroy the argument for an Independent Scotland aligning with UK foreign policy in just nine words. I shall try:

Iraq. Libya. Afghanistan. Palestine. Yemen. Chagos. Catalonia. Trident. Rendition.

We simply cannot align ourselves with the butcher’s apron abroad. Quite simply, that would be to sacrifice a key attribute of a nation state. It would not be Independence. The immorality of UK foreign policy is a key motive for many Scots to want independence in the first place, myself included.”

That raises a number of questions:

Would Scotland be a member of NATO?

Would Scotland’s defence be confined to protecting its borders?

Would Scotland have a role in policing the Greenland, Iceland UK Gap?

What % of GDP should be contributed to supporting NATO objectives?

All the above involve some intense diplomacy.

Finally what about Britains’ ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent; is it just a vanity project? The navy is proud to recognise over 50 years of ‘Continuous at Seat Deterrence’. Just maybe the concept is outdated. Maybe the submarines are no longer so hard to find and follow.. For some years Russian submarines have been able to track their adversaries by following their wake underwater, see, https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a28724/submarine-sonar-soks/ russian wake detection and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SOKS.

Who, apart from Russia, is the nuclear deterrent is meant to deter?

Is it just to deter nuclear 1st strikes? Surely before launching such a 1st strike, Russia would surely knock out the trident subs first.

If it is there to deter a non nuclear attack, what would justify using the deterrent? Would an invasion of the Orkneys justify it?

Plugging the Hole in the Centre of Government

I argue below that, although there are strong arguments for plugging the hole at the centre of government, if this is done without addressings the failings in our so called democracy, the result will be to turn populism into tyranny.

There have been obvious failings in the management of the Covid19 pandemic in the UK. Some would argue that this is due to pure corruption – helping out the government’s friends and funders whilst ignoring the needs of the vast majority of us. While there may be an element of truth in this, it is not the whole story; senior ministers have not had a central team of civil servants to help them resolve inter departmental disagreements. What’s more is that noone has had the confidence to decentralise track and tace to local authorities subject to general guidelines and some extra funding.

There is nothing new about the complaint that there is a hole in the centre of government. Traditionally the Treasury has been at the centre of things. That may have been appropriate in the days when the functions of government were much less. Inevitably in spite of what Tories wish, the reach of government has been vastly enlargened. The Treasury attitude, ‘look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves’ is no longer adequate.

The Institute for Government has just published a report entitled, “The Heart of the Problem: A Weak Centre is Undermining the UK Government”, see, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/weak-centre-government.pdf. The author Alex Thomas is a former civil servant. He writes:

“Summary
The United Kingdom is a highly centralised state and policy decisions made in
Westminster have consequences for citizens across the country. That is particularly
true during a pandemic when extreme restrictions on everyday life are imposed
with the stroke of a ministerial pen. But for such a centralised system the heart of
government that directly supports the prime minister is weak. The prime minister’s
team is underpowered, especially compared with the Treasury, lacking the tools to
set direction and to hold the rest of the government to account. This paper considers
the effectiveness of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office and sets out ways to improve
how they work….

The prime minister was right to ask Sir Michael Barber to review the effectiveness of the
arrangements for making things happen in government.
3 As a contribution to that effort
this paper sets out four recommendations that would make the centre of government
more effective. Most are not completely new, some are partially but not fully in place,
and all reflect the fact that governments would benefit from learning more from the
successes and failures of their predecessors:
• The prime minister should strengthen the Cabinet Office’s role in agreeing the
government’s policy programme. Early in his or her term the prime minister should
set out the government’s objectives clearly, seek explicit cabinet agreement for the
government’s programme, then invest personal time in holding ministers to account
for delivering it. The cabinet secretary in turn should hold permanent secretaries to
account for how well their departments implement that programme through regular
formalised stock takes.
• As part of its sign-off to the programme the cabinet should agree a small number of
top cross-cutting priorities, the delivery of which is then led by teams based in the
Cabinet Office working under the direct authority of the prime minister.
• The prime minister and the cabinet secretary should set up a new, strong central
delivery unit to support the above.
• The cabinet secretary and government chief operating officer should have more
responsibility for running the civil service, including authority over the functions
that provide cross-cutting services within government departments, such as finance,
digital and human resources…”

Howsver he warns,

“Structural changes, though, can never be a substitute for sustained prime ministerial
attention. The power of the Cabinet Office and No.10 ultimately depends on the
willingness of the prime minister to personally invest time in building and maintaining
its strength.”

I do not believe that Boris Johnson has the mental discipline, or steadyness of purpose to do so. Either the structure would have little effect or civil servants would land up making policy. A more disciplined prime minister might be good, or he or she might be contemptuous of democracy and may complete the Tory project to remove all accountability. We would truly become an Elective Dictatorship.

The paper makes reference to the strains imposed by Covid19 and Brexit. The two should be treated differently.

In tackling the pandemic the government chose not to seek emergency powers under Part 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act and this was probably wise. However that does not mean that the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) should not have been drawing up plans at a very early stage. They should have been open to requests from anyone with standing in the health field. They should not have had to wait for a request from ministers to start work but should carry on in the absence of an instruction to cease work. That way the government would by very early last year have had a coherent plan taking into account all health economic and financial facotors. Plans have to be adjusted for circumstances but that is no excuse for having no plan. It is not clear to me that the CCS have been made use of.

In regard to Brexit, if the auther’s recommendations had been implemented years ago people would at least have had a clearer idea of the implications of it for them at an earlier stage.

If we had a proper constitution including proportional representation, things would be better. On a narrow point, the skills required by a party leader are not the same as required by a prime minister. Following the practice in the Irish republic the Queen should appoint the prime minister on the nomination of the House of Commons. Furthermore the Queen should appoint other ministers on the advice of the prime ministers but with the concurrence of the House of Commons.

For whatever reasons the author of this report has chosen to ignore the wider democratic implications of his proposals.

A Sorry Excuse

I have written to the Dorset Echo as follows:

Readers may be aware of the Parliamentary petition to ‘Make it a Criminal Offence for MPs to Mislead the Public’ which has attracted about 63,000 signatures so far. The government has already responded, essentially saying that it is up to Parliament itself to apply any sanctions after investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I suspect that few members of the public will be reassured. In order to justify keeping sanctions ‘in House’, Parliament relies on a clause in the English Bill of Right 1688 (or 1689 depending on the calendar used) which states,

“That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”

However in our crazy unentrenched constitution the Bill of Rights can be repealed as easily as any other statute. It is worth remembering how the BIll of Rights came to be. Basically it was a deal negotiated between a Parliament, fed up with Catholic monarchs claiming the ‘divine right’ to absolute rule on the one hand, and William of Orange and his wife Mary on the other hand who agreed to assume the monarchy but with limited powers.

At that tme Parliament had cause to fear the arbitary actions of the King. I very much doubt whether either party to the agreement would have contemplated how over time the situation would reverse to the point where the Queen reigns but does not rule. The danger now is of an Elective Dictatorship.

Confidence in Parliament is at rock bottom. I have asked Mr Drax to seek to get the above clause removed from the Bill of Rights, in order to restore the reputation of Parliament and to allow effective sanctions to be employed.

The Civil Service and Covid19

In tackling Covid19, the government has made a whole series of poor decisions on purchasing PPE, letting contracts for test and trace etc. Many people have put this down to pure corruption – enriching their mates. But is this the whole story?

Incidently, none of this should surprise us. The record of private provision of public services is dismal. How often do we see private companies who have failed to deliver on their promises being offered further contracts?

The UK went into the crisis poorly prepared. The NHS had been underfunded and the number of beds and nurses reduced. Stocks of PPE which had been built up were then sold off cheap. As a result a lot of decisions had to be made very quickly. Surely the Civil Service should have had a role in this; but were Civil Servants involved, and if not why not? Why are we not told?

In my view the Civil Service should ensure that:

Departmental ministers should always have access to informed and independent advice,

Experienced and independent project managers are provided,

Experienced and independent contract managers are provided, and

it provides the institutional memory of the state.

This is surely what an honest government would want. Unfortunately most governments are more interested in staying in power than pursuing the genuine public interest. So what happens now?

There is currently an expectation that ambitious Civil Servants will not stay in any one department for more than three years. This means that a minister moving into a department may find no senior Civil Servant with any real experience of that department.

To achieve all of this, the Civil Service will have to manage the expectations of individual Civil Servants. They must not have the right to move when it suits them. Some will opt to stay in a department long enough to train their replacements. Those who want to move onwards and upwards will be told there will be fewer opportunities, and only the very best will be allowed to.

Proper management of projects aimed at improving public services is vital and should not be delegated to private sector providers who have very different objectives. It is a skill that can be taught but experience is essential. Complex methodologies such as PRINCE which was sold to government in the 1990s contribute little if anything to successful projects, but bury the issues in endless bureaucracy. In particular they fail to learn the lesson that  ‘big bang’ implementation of computer systems benefits only the big IT companies and not their clients. The classic example of how not to do things is probably the NHS ‘National Programme for IT’ (NPfIT) initiated by Tony Blair in spite of warnings by the Public Accounts Committee that ‘big bang’ was totally the wrong appoach. Before NPfIT was launched the primary care sector had made good progress using the ‘adopt, adapt and improve’ philosophy helped by a number of small specialist IT companies. A ‘healthcare interoperability forum had been started to standardise terminology and adopt common file formats. Batch file transfer would have been fine – no vast central database was needed. The hospital sector was somewhat behind, but could have followed a similar approach. The same basic approach works fine in the Electricity and Gas industries.

Tories have learned little from the NPfIT disaster, witness Universal Credit for example.

Likewise adopting an ‘off the shelf’ contract and expect it to run without public sector intervention is a recipe for disaster as the constant failure of Serco, Capita etc to live up to their promises shows. My own experience shows that large IT companies do not employ outstanding programmers and analysts. Instead they bid low on the basis of a necessrily incomplete initial perception of requirements but then seek to manage the contract in such a way that the client bears all the risks. This has been especially the case where the public sector  or a naive small business is the client. Civil Servants must therefore be trained to manage contracts properly.

Services should not be privatised on the basis of ideology. Privatisation should yield a net benefit to citizens. The assessment should take into account the very real cost of contract management.

The real trick is how to motivate politicians into encouraging this approach. Ed Straw, younger brother of Jack and former partner at pwc, believes that governments should not be allowed to ‘mark their own score card’. An independent body that he calls the ‘resulture’ should be set up to judge politicians and governments. A minister should be judged not on the basis of what legislation he or she gets through Parliament but what improvement if any results from it. One thing is clear; this could not be achieved without a proper codified and entrenched constitution.

Is the Post of Leader of the Opposition Outmoded?

The concept of an official opposition which enjoys certain privileges is a consequence of our adversarial system of politics (much admired by Tories), which is propped up by First Past the Post. At present the attidude is ‘I am right therefore you are wrong’. This is no way to address the many challenges we now face. In Westminster the government controls the agenda. True, some opposition days are allowed, but this is not enough. House of Commons Standing orders provide that:

“14. Arrangement of public business
(1) Save as provided in this order, government business shall have
precedence at every sitting.

(2) Twenty days shall be allotted in each session for proceedings
on opposition business, seventeen of which shall be at the
disposal of the Leader of the Opposition and three of which
shall be at the disposal of the leader of the second largest
opposition party; and matters selected on those days shall have
precedence over government business provided that—”

In the Irish republic and in Scotland, there is no ‘official opposition’ because there does not need to be one. Instead the order of business is decided in a much more consensual way recognising the rights of smaller parties.

The Irish republic has had a codified and entrenched constitution since 1937. In contrast to the messy English constitution the people of Éire  adopted, enacted and gave to themselves the constitution. The constitution does not mention the word opposition.

In the lower house, (the Dáil Éireann), for example, standing orders provide for a Business Committee chaired by the  chair of the House (ceann comhairle, or speaker in Britspeak) and having representatives of all parties with at least 5 TDs plus groups of two or more smaller parties. The standing orders stipulate that decisions shall be consensual. The physical layout of the chamber is a little different from the House of Commons in that there is some seating facing down the aisle to the Chair.

In the Scottish Parliament the programme of business is agreed by a Parliamentary Bureau made up of: The Presiding Officer (like our speaker), and one member from each party having at least 5 MSPs (or group of at least 5 MSPs from smaller parties). The seating in the chamber is arranged in a hemicircle. The Presiding Officer (or Deputy Presiding Officer) decides who speaks in chamber debates and the amount of time for which they are allowed to speak.

Why have the Irish and Scottish legislatures gone along with the consensual approach, whereas Westminster has not? I think a major reason is that their proportional voting systems encourage it.

Leaving that aside, currently the official opposition at Westminster is the Labour Party, a party fatally divided between the left which recognises the need for socialist policies and the right which believes that a socialist government is unelectable in the face of the barrage of right wing propaganda spewed out by most of the mainstream media (including sadly, the BBC). Does such a party deserve the special status of official opposition? Should not opposition parties combine in the current state of emergency, to offer constructive criticism?

Scottish Independence – A View from an Englishman

Support for independence is building in Scotland as a result of the mis-handling of Brexit. In the situation in which Britain is being so badly governed, independence from the rest of the UK and rejoining the EU obviously makes sense. I would love to move to an independent Scotland, but for personal reasons cannot do so at present.

Powers were devolved to Scotland by the Blair government in 1998, but in the view of the Westminster establishment they may be withdrawn at any time. Scotland is not entitled to hold a second independence referendum without permission from Westminster. The current government is unlikely to grant such permission for three reasons:

  • Scotland has natural resources the English have benefitted from,
  • The UK government has based its nuclear deterent in Scotland, and needs Scottish bases to ‘police’ the North atlantic (Greenland, Iceland and UK) gap.
  • Pride: It is important to Boris’ self image that the union is preserved.

So as Craig Murray wrote on 24th Dec,

“…Johnson will now surf a jingoistic media wave and be hailed a great success. Which, for us Scots, makes it still more certain he will never agree voluntarily to an Independence referendum. Anybody who now argues the route to Independence must only lie through the agreement of Downing Street, is arguing the Unionist Case.”

It would therefore appear at first sight, that Scottish independence, whilst good for Scotland, must be bad for the people of England and Wales. What it would do however is to humble Johnson and his acolytes. Maybe at last, both Remainers and Leavers will realise that neither have got what they want and will not longer accept the shit show offered by both major parties.

Those fighting for Scottish independence have major issues to address. The greatest of these is defence but there are others such as the Land Register which is currently based on the Ordnance Survey which was originally devised to help defeat ‘those rebellious Scots’.

The Myth of Sovereignty

This is based on a message to some in Dorset Green Party.

My main message is that the whole Brexit thing is based on the false assumption that Britain can in the foreseeable future be a sovereign nation. To be truly sovereign we need either to be economically self sufficient or continue to retain a competitive advantage.

In the ‘glorious’ days of Empire, Britons went round the world imposing terms of treaties with ‘lesser breeds without the law’, most at home benefitted from cheap imports and were content that the terms of such treaties were not disclosed even to Parliament. In the process we became dependent on these imports to support a rising population. We have lost the empire but are still dependent on these imports. How then can we claim to be a genuinely sovereign nation? In the early to mid 19th century we were the ‘workshop of the world’ based on the use of the cheap imports, but at least had something to sell. By the end of the century Germany had overtaken us.

As an illustration of this consider the need for ‘fixed’ nitrogen. Changes in farming methods meant that we could no longer depend on nitrogen fixing by microorganisms whether living free in the soil or in symbiosis with plants. Application of carbohydates such as ‘shoddy’ was not enough. Futhermore there was the insatiable demands for nitrogen in the manufacture of munitions. Britain bridged the gap by importing bird shit from all over the world. By contrast, Germany invented the Haber process.

As Britain lost its leadership in manufacturing skill and investment, so it lost its advantage in terms of natural resources. In the 19th century Britain was more than self sufficent in coal and iron ore. However coal burning contributes more in CO2 production than any other hydrocarbon fuel and Britsh coal mined underground has been too expensive by international standards. British iron ore is of low quality compared with other sources and since WW2 most ore has been imported.

In the 1970s Britain became a net exporter of oil and gas from the North Sea. That is no longer the case. Britain (including Scotland) has good potential in terms of wind, tidal and wave power, but how well has it used it? It cannot expect to a be leader in terms of solar.

Mrs Thatcher realised we had to become a service economy, especially Financial Services, but for how long can we expect to keep that lead after Brexit?

In the late 1950s in an early edition of the New Scientist, a group of scientists and environmentalists published an article claiming that for Britain to become self sufficient, the population had to be drastically cut and there had to be major land reform. I wish I could remember the title. I was stiil at school then and it had a major impact on me and many of my school friends. It was not until over a decade later that ‘A Blueprint for Survival’ was published in an early edition of the ‘Ecologist’. The latter was crucial in the emergence of the Green Party.

As a nation Britain has to show some humility and acknowledge the march of history.