Murdo's Scotsman Column Articles

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.

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.
 

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.