Murdo's Scotsman Column Articles

Independence is not inevitable, but Unionists shouldn’t be complacent

We have just passed the sixth anniversary of the 2014 Independence Referendum, that “once in a lifetime” vote to decide our country’s future. Not surprisingly, the date has prompted a rash of commentary about where the Scottish constitutional debate now stands, much of it ill-informed.

 

Some commentators, often those distant from Scotland, have pointed to a number of recent opinion polls showing a small majority for a Yes vote on the question that was posed in 2014: “Should Scotland be an independent country”. According to some, this shows unstoppable momentum towards Scottish independence, driven by Brexit and a supposed distrust amongst Scottish voters of Boris Johnson’s UK Government.

 

A significant counter to these arguments was presented in a new poll published on Friday by Survation, commissioned by the campaign group “Scotland in Union”. What this poll showed was that voters were less likely to support leaving the UK if there was a risk of losing the Pound as our currency, the creation of a hard border with England, and cuts to public services. Voters would also be less likely to back separation if Scotland were to be outside both the UK and the EU for a number of years.

 

63% of those polled, including more than a third of SNP voters, said that a second independence referendum was not a priority at this time, and only 11% said constitutional affairs and independence were amongst the most important issues currently facing the country. Crucially, when then asked how they would vote in a referendum as to whether Scotland should remain in the UK or leave, 56% said they would vote to remain as against 44% who would vote to leave, when undecided voters were excluded.

 

In the wake of some of the recent polling on the 2014 question, there have been overblown claims made about how independence is now the “settled will” of the Scottish people. In reality, what this latest polling from Survation shows is that that is far from the case. Scots are certainly divided, perhaps equally, on the constitutional question, but the framing of how the question is put is highly significant in terms of the response that is provided.  A question asked in the abstract about whether Scotland should be an independent country will generate a higher positive response than the one asked in the context of the potential challenges that such a country would face.

 

Pro-independence campaigners also point to polling that suggests that support for separation is higher amongst the younger generation. The Former Moray MP Angus Robertson (who lost his seat in 2015 to the Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross) made this point in crass and offensive terms in a newspaper article at the weekend, claiming that 55,000 “predominantly Yes supporting 16-year-olds” join the electorate every year replacing a similar number of predominantly No supporting older voters “passing away ever year”.

 

Leaving aside the grotesque insensitivity of these comments, particularly at a time when so many older people are dying because of Covid-related illnesses, Mr Robertson’s claim is based on an entirely false premise. It presupposes that an individual’s political views do not change throughout their lifetime. But we know this to be total nonsense, and that people tend to become more conservative, and risk-averse, as they get older.

 

So a 19-year-old voter, with debts in excess of assets, might well be up for taking a punt on a new unproven economic model. The same individual 30 years later with a career, mortgage, savings, a pension, and family responsibilities, will undoubtedly take a different view, and be much more sceptical of a project that cannot answer basic questions on what currency would be used, the level of interest rates, or the long-term security of the financial sector.

 

To give another recent example: if the voting intentions of today’s 18- to 25-year-olds were to remain fixed throughout their lifetimes, then it was only a matter of time before Jeremy Corbyn would become Prime Minister, given his popularity with that age group. Even the Labour Party knew that was nonsense.

 

It is a useful tool for politicians to build a sense of inevitability around a project in order to create momentum amongst the public. I am old enough to remember back in the 1990s when opinion polls consistently told us, over a very long period, that the public felt that Britain adopting the Euro as its currency, and ditching the Pound, was only a matter of time. We know what happened to that supposedly “inevitable” outcome.

 

That is not to say that, in any of this, unionists should be complacent about the current situation. We do know that the economic case for independence, looking at all the uncertainties and the notional fiscal deficit of an independent Scotland, is much weaker than it was back in 2014. It is hard to find a single prominent business voice in Scotland today who will speak out for independence, in contrast to six years ago when there were a range of individuals prepared to back the Yes campaign at that time.

 

Those who would promote the break-up of the UK recognise this, and the argument for separation is framed more on emotional grounds than economic ones; claiming that we in Scotland have such a significantly different political culture from the rest of the UK that we have to break away from our friends in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The annual Social Attitudes Survey tells a different story, suggesting that, across a whole variety of topics, public opinion in Scotland is very much in line with the UK average.

 

I have been encouraged to see, in recent weeks, colleagues in the UK Government focussing more on the constitutional debate. It is important that there is sensitivity to legitimate Scottish concerns on issues such as the UK Internal Market Bill. But it also means exposing some of the hyperbolic Nationalist scaremongering about “Westminster power grabs”, which is as unfounded as it is hysterical.

 

The United Kingdom as a political project of four peoples sharing in the main a similar outlook on life, championing values of liberal democracy, tolerance and open debate, is a model which is envied around the world. This is what we should be promoting and celebrating, as a counter to the attempts of Nationalists to differentiate and divide.

 

As the latest polling shows, independence is not inevitable, but in these uncertain times those on the unionist side of the argument need to work hard to make our case.

Cancelling of David Hume by Edinburgh University is the act of imbeciles

 

It is not surprising that there has been such an angry reaction to last week’s announcement by Edinburgh University that the David Hume Tower will be renamed “40 George Square”, supposedly due to concerns over the philosopher’s views on slavery.

 

Hume was the leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century, and although many of his views are controversial (and were at the time, not least his atheism) he is nevertheless honoured as one of our country’s greatest thinkers. The historian Sir Tom Devine describes him as ‘the greatest philosophical mind Scotland has ever produced”.

 

There is hardly a figure in our past whose views on a wide range of topics would withstand scrutiny from the perspective of today’s standards. But rather than reflect on Hume’s legacy in the broad sense, it seems that Edinburgh University would rather concede to the woke mob and cancel him from its history.

 

Devine has reacted by saying that “the current Principal of Edinburgh University should hang his head in absolute shame”. He is entirely right. In the great city of the Scottish Enlightenment, an institution noted for the development of intellect and the promotion of free thinking and open debate has been taken over by imbeciles.

 

There are many graduates of Edinburgh University, some of whom studied in the Hume Tower themselves, and who now contribute financially to an institution which they hold in high regard, who will be rethinking their donations. Moreover, universities like Edinburgh are already demanding additional public cash to help meet the pressures on them as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ludicrous moves like the cancelling of Hume are unlikely to win them many friends amongst politicians who will have to make choices about where vital taxpayers’ funds should be spent.

Crown Office scandal must be probed

 

The remarkable admission made on behalf of Scotland’s Lord Advocate in the Court of Session last month that the prosecution of two men had been “malicious” and conducted without “probable cause” is an extraordinary statement, and raises really serious questions about the behaviour of our prosecution service.

 

The case revolved around the prosecution of David Whitehouse and Paul Clark, both partners in the insolvency practice Duff & Phelps which handled the administration of Rangers FC. Both Whitehouse and Clark were detained, arrested, and prosecuted, for alleged fraud in connection with the administration. They were cleared of all charges, and subsequently raised court proceedings against the Crown Office claiming that they had been unlawfully treated. Despite originally denying any wrongdoing, the Lord Advocate has now accepted that large parts of the prosecution against the two men were malicious. As far as can be remembered, this is unprecedented in Scottish legal history.

 

Already Whitehouse and Clark have been awarded £600,000 in legal costs from the taxpayer, but this is only a fraction of the total money that they could be due. They are seeking a total of £14 million from the Crown Office and Police Scotland for alleged wrongful detention, arrest and prosecution. Over and above that, both Charles Green and Imran Ahmad – also connected with the Rangers saga - are pursuing the Crown separately in a related case, meaning that the total damages which could be awarded might well exceed an eyewatering £20 million.

 

How on earth did we end up in a situation where the taxpayer is potentially paying out such huge sums, due to a failure on the part of the prosecution service? And why have two innocent men had to go to such lengths to clear their names? Clark’s lawyer Ian Ferguson QC told the court last month that his client had spent more than £1 million on legal costs, whilst Roddy Dunlop QC acting for Whitehouse said that his costs extended to £1.8 million. It is only because these two individuals are personally wealthy that they have been able to get justice, in a way that would never be open to those of more limited means.

 

The original case against Whitehouse and Clark was taken at the instance of the former Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, now a judge, and replaced in the role in 2016 by the current holder, James Wolffe. Both these individuals have to be held accountable for this astonishing turn of events, and one which could see the taxpayer forking out many millions in compensation.

The Court of Session case involving Whitehouse and Clark continues, and will have to be resolved either by a legal conclusion, or (perhaps more likely) by means of an out of court settlement. But whatever the final sums involved, there has to be a full and open investigation into what exactly has gone wrong here, and those responsible held to account.

 

The simple fact that the Lord Advocate has admitted a malicious prosecution should send shivers down the spine of anyone concerned about the integrity of the Scottish legal system.  It is something that we might expect from a third world country like Zimbabwe or North Korea, not modern Scotland. I will be pressing for a full, detailed, and public inquiry into what exactly has gone wrong here, to ensure that those responsible do not evade justice themselves.

Time to start again with Hate Crime Bill

 

This week the trial continues in Paris of 14 individuals accused of playing a part in the deadly attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo back in January 2015. On that day, militant Islamists shot dead 12 people in and around Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office, following the publication of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

 

In the wake of that horrific attack, there was an outbreak of mass solidarity throughout the world, with millions of people marching to display the slogan “Je suis Charlie” in defence of the principle of free speech. By a coincidence of events, today (Wednesday) the Scottish Parliament will have its first opportunity to express a view on the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill, in a Conservative-sponsored debate.

 

There is much in this Bill that is worthy of support, including the abolition of the blasphemy law, and the consolidation of existing Hate Crime legislation. But the Bill is controversial, because of the introduction of a new criminal offence around “stirring up hatred” against protected groups. Numerous voices - lawyers, journalist, writers, faith groups, human rights activists – have combined to condemn this new proposal as an assault on free speech.

 

It is entirely conceivable that if the Charlie Hebdo magazine were to publish its cartoons in Scotland once this law comes into effect, it could face prosecution for stirring up hatred against a protected group, namely the followers of a particular religion. Moreover, under Section 5 of the Bill it is an offence simply to be in possession of inflammatory material. So, having in one’s home a copy of an offensive publication could lead to prosecution.

 

It would be a rich irony if just five years on from us marching in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims, with us all proudly proclaiming “Je suis Charlie”, we now introduced a law that could see a prosecution here for publication of the same material.

 

The right to free speech is fundamental to any open liberal and democratic society. The SNP Government need to think again, listen to all the voices raised in opposition, and step back from the dangerous parts of this Bill before it goes any further.

Despite denials, Salmond conspiracy theories still abound

 

Generally speaking, I am not a great believer in conspiracy theories. Whether it is the moon landings, the assassination of JFK, or the influence of the Illuminati, I take a pretty sceptical view of those with outlandish notions about secret events.

 

There are plenty of conspiracy theorists when it comes to the handling of the harassment complaints against former First Minister Alex Salmond by the Scottish Government. The Parliamentary Inquiry into this affair continued its business yesterday, hearing again from the Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, and also from the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe. It was an attempt to shine light into what is an increasingly murky set of affairs.

 

We know from previous evidence sessions that there were serious concerns around the handling of complaints against Ministers in the SNP Government, and that the scale of complaints seemed to be far above what was being reported in the civil service elsewhere. This suggested a culture within the Scottish Government of bullying the staff, something highlighted in the evidence the Committee heard from trade union representatives last week. If concerns were raised, there was a tendency to deal with these quietly, by moving the complainer to a different office, rather than addressing the root of the problem.

 

The Committee is also investigating the handling of the Judicial Review by Mr Salmond in 2018-19, when he challenged the Scottish Government’s complaints process. We know that the Scottish Government subsequently accepted that there were flaws in the policy, and accordingly settled the case in the former First Minister’s favour, paying him legal costs in excess of £500,000.

 

What is significant about this sum is that it is set at the highest level of expenses that can be awarded in a civil litigation, and is normally only paid in circumstances where one party has conducted the case incompetently or unreasonably, thereby causing the other party unnecessary expense. For it to be paid by the Scottish Government in this case suggests a woeful mishandling of the legal case, for which the Scottish taxpayer is picking up the bill.

 

The Scottish Government are still refusing to release the legal advice on which they based their decision to defend Salmond’s court challenge. It is unclear how definitive this was, but the consequences of following it (if that is what the Scottish Government did) were significant, hundreds of thousands of pounds spent in legal expenses.

There are other unanswered questions around the role of the current First Minister in all this. A Freedom of Information request has revealed that some 15 meetings were held between August 2018 and January 2019 to discuss the defence of the Judicial Review Petition, in which one or more of the First Minister, the Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, the Head of People Advice Judith McKinnon, the Lord Advocate, and the First Minister’s Chief of Staff. Why was the First Minister attending meetings about what was essentially a legal matter? And why was her Chief of Staff also in attendance?

 

It has emerged that in the wake of the Judicial Review case, Leslie Evans sent a text message to a colleague stating: ‘We may have lost the battle, but we will win the war’. I asked her yesterday if this was a reference to a war against Alex Salmond, but she denied this, claiming that she was talking about the construction of a robust harassment complaints process.

 

I doubt that this explanation will satisfy many of Mr Salmond’s allies, who remain convinced that he was the target of an organised campaign by those at the top of the Scottish Government. It is the purpose of this Committee to try and get to the truth of the matter, and we have still to hear from the First Minister herself, and Mr Salmond. It is clear we are some weeks away, at least, of getting a clear picture of what exactly has been going on. Until we have full transparency on all issues in this affair, the conspiracy theories will continue to abound.

Lose liberalism, and we lose civilisation

The term “liberal” in a political context has a variety of different meanings: in the US, it is generally taken as a description of someone on the left of politics, whilst in contrast we are more likely to use it to describe someone in the centre ground. There is, however, an older and more accurate definition of a liberal, which according to the Cambridge English Dictionary is “someone who respects many different types of beliefs or behaviour”. It is this view of liberalism which lies at the heart of modern British democracy, and underpins so much of our political thinking from left to right. It is also a view that today seems under attack as never before. 

We see the rise of illiberal attitudes manifested in a recent series of well-publicised events, which suggest a deeply worrying strain of new intolerance amongst sections of public opinion. The best example of this is the succession of vile, vicious and misogynistic attacks made on the writer JK Rowling, whose criticism of the term “people who menstruate” instead of “women” led to accusations against her of transphobia, with various authors quitting her literary agency, and some workers at her publishing house reportedly refusing to have anything to do with her new book.

At the weekend, the Labour MP, and Shadow Environment Minister, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, had to apologise to Rowling after he accused her of using her own sexual assault as “justification” for discriminating against trans people. Rowling has won plaudits for her courage in speaking out on issues which many in the worlds of politics and the arts are scared even to mention for fear of the vitriol that will be thrown at them.

Most concerning of all is the extreme view put forward by a vocal minority that individuals holding the views expressed by JK Rowling should not be permitted to express them; that they should be “no-platformed”, or “cancelled”. There is, according to these new Puritans, “no debate” around these issues, and all dissenting opinions must be crushed. This illiberalism is championed even by some politicians on the Left who would want to present themselves as paragons of tolerance. 

We saw something similar in the recent debate over the toppling of statues, motivated by the Black Lives Matter campaign. This reached the heights of absurdity when the statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn was daubed with BLM graffiti and the words “Racist King”. 

Whether there is any historical justification for the claim that King Robert was a racist in his attitudes is beyond my knowledge, although it would be a reasonable assumption that his views on same-sex relationships would be out of kilter with present day sensibilities. He was, of course, a great hero who led the Scottish nation to liberation from the English oppressor. He was, at the same time, someone who murdered a rival claimant to the Scottish crown at the altar of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, an appalling act which lead to his excommunication. 

Like many characters from history, Robert the Bruce was both a hero and a villain. There are few figures from the past whose reputations can survive the scrutiny of today’s intolerant new Puritans. Rather than tearing down the statues of those whose morals we now question, I much prefer the wise approach favoured by Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, who believes that the statues of controversial figures should be retained but with updated plaques giving a more balanced view on their track records – as is now happening with the Henry Dundas monument in Edinburgh.

If we are to have decisions taken about statues – whether Charles II in Parliament Square in Edinburgh, Henry Dundas, Robert the Bruce, or Winston Churchill, these decisions have to be taken on a properly democratic basis, not driven by the views – or worse still, the thuggish direct action – of a tiny extremist minority who represent no one but themselves. In a liberal democracy, we cannot ever surrender to the mob.

Even comedy is now under attack, with episodes of Little Britain and Fawlty Towers being removed from TV screens because some find them offensive. The intolerance that saw the Month Python film Life of Brian banned from cinemas four decades ago is today re-emerging, albeit in a different form. And we see echoes of this agenda in the SNP Government’s new Hate Crimes Bill, with its worrying proposals to criminalise those who express opinions which might be deemed to “stir up hatred” against protected groups, a significant threat to freedom of speech.

Against this tide of illiberalism there is only one place where politicians should stand, and that is against the mob; to be a voice of reason in a tide of hysteria; and to promote calm in the face of rage. It is reassuring that there are those in all political parties who are prepared to speak up in defence of liberalism, just as there were those willing to support JK Rowling when she came under attack.

I have many political disagreements with the SNP MP Joanna Cherry, but she has been an effective champion of free speech. Last week she reminded us of an important, and pertinent, quote from George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. 

The freedom to only hear opinions with which we agree is no freedom at all. We must be prepared to defend unpopular opinions whether we agree with them personally or not. Unionist or Nationalist, Tory or Socialist, we all need to stand together and declare: we are all liberals now. For without liberalism, there is no civilisation, and all we are left with are dogs fighting over the scraps.


 

Labour’s Constitutional Confusion Continues

 

Anyone hoping over the last few years for some clarity and consistency from the Scottish Labour Party on their position on the Constitution will have been disappointed. Trapped between the Scylla of the pro-Independence SNP, and the Charybdis of the pro-Union Scottish Conservatives, the Labour ship has struggled to make progress, failing to find a middle way that might attract back former supporters lost to both larger Parties.

 

Under the former UK Leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour had more positions on a second independence referendum than could be found in the pages of the Karma Sutra. Famously, at one point in the General Election campaign last Autumn, there were three different stances in the course of one 24-hour period. Against this backdrop, it is little wonder that Labour have lacked credibility on the constitutional issue, and that they lost all but one of their Scottish seats in December.

 

In an effort to make some progress on the issue, Scottish Labour adopted yet another policy position at the weekend, comprising (in their own words) “a firm policy statement against independence and a second referendum but for radical reform”. To the annoyance of some of their own MSPs, Labour are now stating that they will oppose a second independence referendum in the Holyrood elections due next year. Given their tragic history in these matters, it remains to be seen how long this new line will hold.

 

In line with comments made by Sir Keir Starmer during his recent leadership campaign, the new Scottish Labour stance talks about “a renewed partnership between all nations of the UK based on a progressive federal structure”. However, what this means in practice remains a mystery.

 

Starmer is by no means the first senior Labour figure to talk about a federal approach to the UK. Many other Labour voices, from Gordon Brown to Kezia Dugdale, have promoted the attractions of a federalist approach. As the elusive “third way” between Unionism and Nationalism, it certainly has political attractions. The problem is that federalism simply does not work in the context of the UK as it currently exists.

 

The essential challenge facing all proponents of UK federalism is that a four-nation federal structure, with England as one of the component units, would be so hugely imbalanced as to be unworkable in practice. With 85% of the overall population, and an overwhelming percentage of the wealth, the interests of England would always dominate. Conceivably, the First Minister of England (if such a position were to be created) would be a more significant and powerful political figure than the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, which would be an absurd situation.

 

The alternative approach would be to federalise within England, breaking that country into self-governing regions. And yet, as we have seen over the past two decades, there is very little appetite within England for legislative assemblies to be created. Whilst devolution of power to city regions has progressed, and will continue to do so, the notion that Yorkshire might have different laws to Lancashire would strike the average Englishman as an absurdity. It is simply not going to happen within any conceivable timescale.

 

How Labour intend to address this essential difficulty is still entirely unclear, despite all the years they have had to think about the practicalities of federalism. That said, there are proposals put forward which would have benefits, among them the abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement with a Senate of the nations and regions, and the establishment of a UK Council of Ministers. In a paper I wrote last year for the think-tank Bright Blue Scotland, I put forward just such ideas as a means of reducing imbalances in the current UK constitutional arrangements, and support for these reforms is reflected across the political spectrum. But it all falls far short of the federalism that Labour now claim to support.

 

It is not just in relation to federalism that Labour’s new position is riven with confusion. On the Fiscal Framework that governs the financial relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK, the new Labour policy paper states this: “There must also be a renegotiation of the Fiscal Framework so that Scotland is not financially penalised for tackling poverty and inequality through social security reforms, or financially penalised for relative economic underperformance”. This is a breath-taking statement, and an astonishing repudiation of the Labour party stance taken at the time of both the Calman and Smith Commissions, which advanced financial devolution.

 

The whole principle that lay behind the fiscal devolution promoted by both Calman and Smith (and now made law through the two subsequent Scotland Acts) was that each part of the United Kingdom would bear the financial cost of political choices made by governments elected there. So, for example, an expansion of social security within Scotland alone would have to be funded by Scottish taxpayers, and not those elsewhere in the UK. Similarly, if thanks to policies implemented by the Scottish Government, the Scottish economy performed relatively better than the rest of the UK, then the benefit of any tax uplift would come to the Finance Minister here, and not be shared with other parts of the UK.

 

Labour seem now to be rejecting this entire model and are demanding, effectively, that English taxpayers should pay for the policy choices made by Scottish politicians. This isn’t federalism, or even devolution. Indeed, what is being proposed is actually a reversal of devolution. It would mean that there is no point to fiscal devolution at all, and that the tax-varying powers currently held by Holyrood are without purpose. Far from seeking to enhance devolution, Labour’s new position seems to be that it should be rolled back.

 

I simply cannot imagine that this was the objective that Labour had in mind when they set out to update their policy position. And yet, that would be the outcome of the measures that they are currently proposing.

 

Anyone hoping that this latest statement from Scottish Labour would clear up the confusion around their stance on the constitution will have been left bitterly disappointed. All we see is yet more muddled thinking and lack of clarity. Former Labour-voting unionists who have switched to the Scottish Conservatives will want to keep their votes with Party that respects the devolution settlement, and at the same time is firm in its support of the Union and in its rejection of another Independence referendum.

Despite the political spats, all parts of the UK are relaxing lockdown

With the UK Government now effectively paying the salaries of a large section of the workforce, thanks to the generosity of the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, it is not surprising that there have been calls in some quarters for the permanent introduction of a Universal Basic Income. The basic concept of UBI, whereby the State pays on an unconditional basis to every citizen an annual sum of money calculated to cover essential living costs, is one which has had its attractions to both those on the Left and the Right of politics over many years.

 

Last month the think tank Reform Scotland published a paper proposing a UBI worth annually £5200 per adult and £2600 per child, picking up figures put forward by the Scottish Greens. The policy has won the support of the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who along with other SNP politicians is calling for its introduction by the UK Government as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

The advocates of UBI claim that it would be preferable to the existing system of welfare benefits, removing the need for means testing, and as a result generating substantial savings in the administration of benefits. Individuals would be secure in the knowledge that they had a set minimum income, and any work they did would guarantee payments over and above this without any claw back. In every case, work would pay.

 

Moreover, individuals who chose not to work would have freedom to do so, knowing that the State would be always there to prevent them falling into destitution. In a world where the future of employment is ever more uncertain, and where we have seen a growth in the gig economy, individuals would have protection against insecurities and variable earnings.

 

So, what’s not to like? The problem is that, despite its superficial attractions, there are major flaws in all the models for UBI that have been put forward.

 

The biggest problem with any system of UBI is simply that of affordability. For UBI to achieve its objective of providing a safety net for all individuals, it would have to be set at a sufficiently high level to cover all basic living costs, including those of housing. In effect, this would mean something close to the existing National Living Wage for a full-time working week. At such a level, the costs would be astronomical, requiring eye-watering levels of personal taxation, particularly on middle and higher earners.

 

Alternatively, if set at a lower level (for example the figures suggested by Reform Scotland), the level of UBI would be insufficient to provide the basic support that makes the notion attractive to its advocates. That would still require the provision of additional top-up, and means-tested, benefits, and therefore the objective of simplicity in the welfare system would be lost entirely.

 

But it is not just on the basis of cost that the arguments for UBI fall down. The current welfare system, whatever view one takes of it, is established to provide specific payments for individuals in their bespoke circumstances. So, for example, individuals with disability, high housing costs, or high childcare responsibilities, will receive higher payments than those without. If that approach is dismantled, either individuals with these additional needs will lose out, or everyone will have to be paid at levels which would cover the costs being borne by the neediest, at huge financial expense.

 

If UBI were attractive in supporting those in poverty, it might be thought that it would have the support of anti-poverty groups. However, think tanks such as the Centre for Social Justice and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are united in opposing UBI, believing that it is not the answer to addressing poverty. Indeed, it is the conclusion of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that UBI schemes would actually increase poverty for children, working age adults, and pensioners, compared to the current tax and benefits system. If those who are devoted to campaigning against poverty take such a negative view, then the rest of us are right to be cautious.

 

There is another reason why UBI should be opposed, and that is because it offends the basic belief that work is good for people. There is a long Scottish tradition that work is fulfilling, gives purpose to life, and is a reward in itself – an approach described by the German sociologist Max Weber as “the Protestant work ethic”.

As we have seen over the past few weeks with people becoming increasingly frustrated in lockdown, enforced idleness is not something most people enjoy, for any extended period. Workplaces are not simply locations housing wage slaves: they are environments where we interact with other human beings, socialise, and feel that our efforts are of value. Even the most mundane jobs provide social benefits well beyond those available to individuals who are stuck at home unemployed, regardless of the financial rewards.

 

There may be advocates of UBI who believe that the State should pay individuals an income which allows them to make choices not to work, to go on adventures and live their dreams, but such an approach is far detached from reality. I suspect that the great majority of Scots would be more inclined to the view that people should not receive money for nothing, particularly when that comes out of the taxes of those who are having to get out of their beds and work hard for a living.

 

The question also has to be answered: if Universal Basic Income is such a good idea, why has nobody implemented it before now? After all, it is a policy idea that has been around for many decades. Finland experimented with a scheme in 2017, but it was abandoned after an initial two-year trial period, and there are few indications of other countries wanting to follow suit.

 

I think it can be safely concluded, despite the extravagant claims made in support of UBI, that it is simply not a workable, deliverable, or cost-effective policy to be pursued. It does not even achieve what many of its advocates claim for it. At best, it is a distraction from the important task that will face all governments at the end of this pandemic, of rebuilding economies and getting people back into meaningful work.

Universal Basic Income might be in fashion, but it’s not the answer

With the UK Government now effectively paying the salaries of a large section of the workforce, thanks to the generosity of the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, it is not surprising that there have been calls in some quarters for the permanent introduction of a Universal Basic Income. The basic concept of UBI, whereby the State pays on an unconditional basis to every citizen an annual sum of money calculated to cover essential living costs, is one which has had its attractions to both those on the Left and the Right of politics over many years.

 

Last month the think tank Reform Scotland published a paper proposing a UBI worth annually £5200 per adult and £2600 per child, picking up figures put forward by the Scottish Greens. The policy has won the support of the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who along with other SNP politicians is calling for its introduction by the UK Government as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

The advocates of UBI claim that it would be preferable to the existing system of welfare benefits, removing the need for means testing, and as a result generating substantial savings in the administration of benefits. Individuals would be secure in the knowledge that they had a set minimum income, and any work they did would guarantee payments over and above this without any claw back. In every case, work would pay.

 

Moreover, individuals who chose not to work would have freedom to do so, knowing that the State would be always there to prevent them falling into destitution. In a world where the future of employment is ever more uncertain, and where we have seen a growth in the gig economy, individuals would have protection against insecurities and variable earnings.

 

So, what’s not to like? The problem is that, despite its superficial attractions, there are major flaws in all the models for UBI that have been put forward.

 

The biggest problem with any system of UBI is simply that of affordability. For UBI to achieve its objective of providing a safety net for all individuals, it would have to be set at a sufficiently high level to cover all basic living costs, including those of housing. In effect, this would mean something close to the existing National Living Wage for a full-time working week. At such a level, the costs would be astronomical, requiring eye-watering levels of personal taxation, particularly on middle and higher earners.

 

Alternatively, if set at a lower level (for example the figures suggested by Reform Scotland), the level of UBI would be insufficient to provide the basic support that makes the notion attractive to its advocates. That would still require the provision of additional top-up, and means-tested, benefits, and therefore the objective of simplicity in the welfare system would be lost entirely.

 

But it is not just on the basis of cost that the arguments for UBI fall down. The current welfare system, whatever view one takes of it, is established to provide specific payments for individuals in their bespoke circumstances. So, for example, individuals with disability, high housing costs, or high childcare responsibilities, will receive higher payments than those without. If that approach is dismantled, either individuals with these additional needs will lose out, or everyone will have to be paid at levels which would cover the costs being borne by the neediest, at huge financial expense.

 

If UBI were attractive in supporting those in poverty, it might be thought that it would have the support of anti-poverty groups. However, think tanks such as the Centre for Social Justice and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are united in opposing UBI, believing that it is not the answer to addressing poverty. Indeed, it is the conclusion of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that UBI schemes would actually increase poverty for children, working age adults, and pensioners, compared to the current tax and benefits system. If those who are devoted to campaigning against poverty take such a negative view, then the rest of us are right to be cautious.

 

There is another reason why UBI should be opposed, and that is because it offends the basic belief that work is good for people. There is a long Scottish tradition that work is fulfilling, gives purpose to life, and is a reward in itself – an approach described by the German sociologist Max Weber as “the Protestant work ethic”.

As we have seen over the past few weeks with people becoming increasingly frustrated in lockdown, enforced idleness is not something most people enjoy, for any extended period. Workplaces are not simply locations housing wage slaves: they are environments where we interact with other human beings, socialise, and feel that our efforts are of value. Even the most mundane jobs provide social benefits well beyond those available to individuals who are stuck at home unemployed, regardless of the financial rewards.

 

There may be advocates of UBI who believe that the State should pay individuals an income which allows them to make choices not to work, to go on adventures and live their dreams, but such an approach is far detached from reality. I suspect that the great majority of Scots would be more inclined to the view that people should not receive money for nothing, particularly when that comes out of the taxes of those who are having to get out of their beds and work hard for a living.

 

The question also has to be answered: if Universal Basic Income is such a good idea, why has nobody implemented it before now? After all, it is a policy idea that has been around for many decades. Finland experimented with a scheme in 2017, but it was abandoned after an initial two-year trial period, and there are few indications of other countries wanting to follow suit.

 

I think it can be safely concluded, despite the extravagant claims made in support of UBI, that it is simply not a workable, deliverable, or cost-effective policy to be pursued. It does not even achieve what many of its advocates claim for it. At best, it is a distraction from the important task that will face all governments at the end of this pandemic, of rebuilding economies and getting people back into meaningful work.

Coronavirus would have caused catastrophe for independent Scotland

The UK has sent £10 billion to help Scotland deal with Covid-19 but, like Oliver Twist, the SNP is asking for more despite its claims that Scotland can stand on its own two feet, writes Murdo Fraser.

If ever there were an argument to be made about how the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom support Scotland and our economy, it has been substantially boosted by the events of the last few weeks. On Friday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced an extension to the Self-Employed Support Scheme being provided by the UK Government, one which has already seen 2.3 million claims worth £6.8 billion across the country. In addition, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which has helped furlough 8.4 million jobs across the UK, has also been extended, with greater flexibilities introduced.

The total level of UK Government support for the Scottish Government, and directly to Scottish business, now exceeds a staggering £10 billion, made up of Barnett consequentials from spending in England of £3.5 billion for the Scottish Government to distribute, the Job Retention Scheme worth £4.8 billion, and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, the Business Interruption Loan Scheme, Bounce Back Loans and additional welfare payments, collectively bringing the total to around £2,000 extra for every man, woman and child in Scotland.

With some depressing inevitability, the response from the Scottish Government to these substantial sums is that they are not enough. Like a Highland Oliver Twist, the SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes has her hand extended asking for more.

To a unionist, there are few sights more delicious than observing nationalist politicians whose default response to any issue affecting Scotland is to ask Westminster for more money. It is a rich irony that a party committed to Scotland standing on its own two feet seems unable to implement that principle in practice whilst they hold the reins of power in the Scottish Government.

The more than £10 billion provided by the UK Government stands in stark contrast to what has been allocated so far by the Scottish Government directly from their own resources. In its summer budget revision, the Scottish Government has reprioritised a mere £255 million from within existing departmental budgets for Covid-19 expenditure. To put this in context, this is from a total Scottish Government budget now in excess of £46 billion in the current financial year.

Scottish Reserve has been run down

The SNP argue that, without substantial borrowing powers, Holyrood is restricted in the business and other support that it is able to offer, ignoring the fact that the Scottish Government does already possess powers to borrow, albeit limited, and also the facility that is known as the Scotland Reserve.

The issue is that these borrowing powers have already been substantially committed, and the Scotland Reserve run down, to fund day-to-day spending commitments, not least the cost of the SNP’s most recent budget deal with the Greens – a point which had previously been picked up by members of Holyrood’s Finance Committee.

Rather than setting aside cash and leaving capacity for a rainy day, SNP ministers seem to have taken the approach of an irresponsible teenager maxing out the credit card, and then turning to their parents for help.

Without the capacity to borrow more, where might additional funds for business support come from within the existing Scottish budget? We do know that there are large areas of spending which were allocated as recently as February to which the Scottish Government are no longer committed – the promise to introduce 1,140 hours of free childcare for three and four-year olds; the devolution of social security powers; and a whole range of capital infrastructure projects which will not now be proceeding at the speed previously envisaged due to lockdown.

Rather than plead poverty and demand more Westminster cash, it surely cannot be beyond the wit of Scottish ministers to look within their own budgets and find money not currently being properly utilised, that can then be freed up to support struggling businesses.

The Fiscal Framework that governs the size of the Scottish devolved budget protects us from an economic shock across the whole UK. But if the Scottish economy takes a greater knock than the UK as a whole as a result of this crisis, then the tax revenue coming to the Scottish Government will be lower in future, leaving us with less money to spend on public services, or the need to increase taxes yet higher.

What if Scotland had voted Yes in 2014?

There will be further difficulties for the Scottish economy if lockdown restrictions are not eased in Scotland on a similar timescale to the rest of the UK. The Chancellor has made it clear that the furlough scheme will apply on the same basis UK-wide, leaving Scottish business concerned that they may be put at a disadvantage if the furlough scheme is restricted before the Scottish Government allows them fully back to work.

We now know that decisions being taken by the Scottish Government around relaxing lockdown restrictions are largely matters of political consideration, rather than being based entirely on the science. It was, and remains, a significant principle of fiscal devolution that each part of the United Kingdom has to take responsibility for, and bear the cost of, political choices that are made.

So it would be entirely unreasonable to expect the English taxpayer to support a furlough scheme lasting longer in Scotland due to a political choice from the Scottish Government, or indeed restrictions having to be maintained here as a consequence of political failures from the SNP in, for example, providing PPE to care homes, or extending testing.

With SNP Ministers already encouraging taxpayer-funded bodies such as Historic Environment Scotland and Sport Scotland to take advantage of the UK furlough scheme, it is unlikely that the UK Treasury will be sympathetic to yet more demands from the Scottish Government for additional cash not available elsewhere in the UK.

There is a fascinating counterfactual analysis to be done as to what situation Scotland would now be in had we voted for independence in 2014, with a new state having been created, possibly with its own currency, an annual budget deficit in excess of £12 billion, and hit with the enormous economic shock that the coronavirus pandemic has brought us.

It sends shivers down the spine to think what a catastrophic situation Scotland would be in without the broader UK support that we now benefit from. Perhaps even SNP ministers can reflect, in quieter moments, just what a lucky escape we had when we said No to separation in that once-in-a-lifetime vote.

Tourism needs greater lockdown clarity not foul-mouthed tweets

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford’s retweet of an image of the Scottish-English Border with the slogan “We’re shut. F*** off!” is far from what’s needed to help the Scottish tourist industry, writes Murdo Fraser.

Within an hour of the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon making a statement to the Scottish Parliament last Thursday on her “route map” out of lockdown, my email inbox had filled up with queries from constituents: Am I now able to visit my granny in Inverness? Am I allowed to play golf if my club is more than five miles from my home? Can I get back to work now, if I am working alone in the open air?

Despite all the detail that the Scottish Government tried to provide in relation to the different phases that would allow lockdown to be relaxed, there were as many questions as there were answers. They all put into a degree of perspective the criticisms made by many Nationalist politicians of Boris Johnson’s announcement two weeks ago of relaxations in England, and the confusion and mixed messages that might arise from those. It just confirms what many observers have noted that, whilst getting into lockdown is a relatively simple process with straightforward messages, coming out of it is likely to be much more complex, and confusing for the public.

Indeed, despite all the rhetoric from the Scottish Government about Scotland having to take a different path from other parts of the UK, the First Minister’s publication was remarkably similar to that of the Prime Minister, albeit several weeks delayed. It was, as Ruth Davidson observed last week, a bit like watching a TV channel on plus 1, with a built-in delay.

One sector hugely impacted at present, and desperate for answers not being provided last Thursday, is Scottish tourism. An industry worth £7 billion to the Scottish economy has been left in ruins by lockdown. It was announced at the weekend that seven Scottish hotels in towns like Oban and Pitlochry are to close after the collapse of the Specialist Leisure Group, bringing with it well-known coach holiday brands Shearings, Caledonian Travel and Wallace Arnold. Undoubtedly there will be many business failures to follow.

The trade association UK Hospitality has urged ministers to provide a clear timetable for an exit from lockdown. In response, Economy Secretary Fiona Hyslop said that she hopes the industry will have a summer season, albeit later than normal. However, she was unable to give any dates, leaving operators in the invidious position of being unable to accept forward bookings and plan ahead.

Equally concerning is the fact that within the Government’s Covid-19 route map, no distinction has been drawn between hotel-style accommodation and self-catering properties; both being lumped into Phase 3. This choice is inexplicable to those in the industry, who believe that it is perfectly possible to operate self-catering cottages, holiday lodges and caravan parks with appropriate social distancing, when that is much harder for hotels and guest houses. Lodge park operators who have taken forward bookings for the summer now face having to repay deposits and potentially put their businesses at risk, due to the approach the Scottish Government is taking.

The Economy Secretary stated that she wants to see people from England come and visit when it is safe to do so. Quite how encouraging visitors from down south is helped by her party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, endorsing a message on social media incorporating an image of the Scottish Border with the slogan “We’re shut. F*** off!”, remains a mystery. With the rest of the UK being by far the biggest market for domestic Scottish tourism, and crucially important at a time when international travel has virtually disappeared, actions like these are not just deeply irresponsible, but could well have a long-term damaging impact and cost jobs. Moreover, we can only imagine the outrage that there would have been, and the shrieks of dog-whistle racism and xenophobia, had any Conservative politician suggested a similar sign to be erected at Dover directed at visitors from the Continent.

The Scottish tourist industry has been vital to our economy over many decades, and is a great success story in terms of providing employment in rural areas in particular. A sector which has contributed so much to Scotland now needs Government to support it in turn. Greater clarity about its future is required as a matter of urgency.