Thursday, 10 August 2017

Catalonia, Untangled

The climate in Catalonia is getting hotter every day, and not just because it is high summer here. The Generalitat, the Catalan government, is planning an October 1st referendum on independence and Carles Puigdemont, its President, has said that a Yes vote will mean a near-immediate declaration of independence. The conservative ('Partido Popular') party in Madrid is using the Constitutional Court ('Tribunal Constitutional') to overturn the decisions of the - supposedly - autonomous Generalitat, and is checking - each week - every payment made by the Catalan government to ensure that its funds are not being used for the plebiscite.

At any point over the next few weeks this could erupt into a real face-to-face confrontation. Puigdemont will reconvene the Generalitat two weeks earlier than normal, on August 15th, and the plan is then to pass the laws that would govern the referendum and its aftermath. It is likely that the Madrid government will intervene - the use of force is being talked about - while the Catalans will respond with mass protests of the sort seen each 11th of September.

11/9/14
Picture source: http://www.ara.cat/2014/09/11/videos/el-radar/11_setembre_2014-V_1210108985_16906799_987x555.png

Why is this happening? And what are the parallels with Scotland?

Three reasons stand out: bad governance, regional finance, and the wealth gap.

Bad Governance

The Spanish government in Madrid has consistently mis-read the signals from Catalonia. President Rajoy promised 'dialogue' but has offered none. Instead he and his conservative government have used the Constitutional Court to overturn, again and again, decisions made by the 'autonomous' government of Catalonia. The first, and for many Catalans the worst, of these decisions was to overturn the 2006 Statute for Catalonia, which had been passed first by the Generalitat and then approved by 74% of voters in a referendum. The process in the Court took four years - the decision was published in 2010 - and the result confirmed what many in Catalonia had suspected - that our government had no real power, and that at any moment Madrid could intervene to change a policy that it did not like.

The parallel for Scotland is the overturning of the 'Sewell Convention' in the Brexit case taken by Gina Miller et al to the UK Supreme Court. That decision demonstrated that the Scottish Parliament has no real powers and that Westminster is supreme.

Back in Spain, the conservative government continues to use the Constitutional Court to overturn the Generalitat's decisions - on everything from how we can pass laws to what we can call our ministries. This is simply bad governance. Instead of engaging with the Generalitat, the Spanish government is bashing it with a large legal hammer. It's law-law, not jaw-jaw.

Money

In a state made up of autonomous regions you'd expect a sensible system of financial transfers so that wealthy regions help to fund poorer regions. 

In Spain, this is a muddle hidden in a black box.

The Basque Country and Navarra are treated differently from other regions - allowed to gather and spend their own taxes and to pay the Spanish state an annual sum for shared services such as defence and foreign affairs. (This is called the 'Foral' system here.) The remaining regions either pay into the central pot (Catalonia and Madrid are the principal contributors) or receive from the pot (poor regions such as Andalucia and Extremadura are normally net recipients.) But it is not nearly as clear as that, and there is endless political horseplay with successive Spanish governments favouring regions that voted for the party in power, and pharaonic projects planted in some regions and not in others. It's a mess, but the Spanish government seems unable to sort it out.

The Catalans - consistently one of the regions paying out - are sick of it. Catalunya has been a net contributor for years, and yet sees very little benefit, or change, in the recipient regions.

The parallel for Scotland is, of course, our oil. Oil from Scotland's waters has been squandered by Westminster (the phrase comes from Kevin McKenna's article here). Scotland's poor have not benefited from the country's huge natural resource wealth - check the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation if you need confirmation. Like the system in Spain, the UK government has hidden from the Scots the extent of the squandering, and has favoured political friends in the City of London over the people who really need the money in Possil Park or Pilton. 


The Wealth Gap

Something has made more people in Catalonia, more discontented than they were. One possible explanation is the combination of the 2007 financial crisis, and the wealth gap.

The financial crisis forced millions of people across Spain into unemployment. Youth unemployment rose to over 50% and millions of families were left with no breadwinner in a country in which unemployment benefit is limited and short-term. During the crisis the Spanish government passed a series of laws to create more 'flexibility' in the workplace - meaning the same sorts of zero-hours, flimsy contracts that the Tories of Westminster favour. For their employees, not for themselves of course.

Spain, like the UK, has the dubious distinction of being in the top - worst - dozen countries in the OECD index of wealth inequality. Wealth is not being shared out and so, like other countries in the top 12 (Turkey, Mexico, the USA...) folk at the bottom of the wealth pile are increasingly discontented and are expressing that discontent in their votes and on the streets.



The wealth gap is not the only reason for discontent, but it seems to be a catalyst for anyone who feels that injustice is being done. Catalonia hardly needs a catalyst - enough injustice is being done to this nation to ensure that, come 1st October, Yes will win outright in the referendum. The big question then is - what will Spain do next?

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Top Secret Speech Leaked



This blog has received a top-secret leak of Nicola Sturgeon’s forthcoming speech on IndyRef2. Here’s the draft:

Journalists, and people called ‘Ruth’, ask me every day whether I will give up on a second independence referendum.

I’d like to give a simple, direct, once-and-for-all answer:

No.

Let me explain why.

The clue is in the name of the party I lead – the Scottish National Party. The SNP is here because we believe in independence for Scotland. Our primary purpose is to let the people of Scotland govern Scotland.

There are many ways that might be achieved. It might be via a brief Act of Parliament – that was how Canada became independent in 1931 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statute_of_Westminster_1931), and Malta in 1964. Or it might be via a treaty, which is how the Philippines became independent in 1946 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Manila_(1946)). Or it might be via a referendum. All of these ways can be democratic, fair, representative routes to independence.

So, no. 

I am not going to give up on a second independence referendum. Or on any of the other ways in which the country I call home can, finally, return to the fold of independent, democratic states governed by and for the people who live here.

I am especially not going to give up on any of the ways of winning independence in the middle of the Brexit negotiations. The Tory party has chucked Britain to the dogs, destroying jobs, driving many of the migrants who contribute to our economy out of the country and cutting our universities off from funding. David Davis will use everything we have – our fisheries, our farming, renewable energy, our whisky and our tourism – as pawns in a negotiation that is designed to save Tory skins, and to keep London’s all-powerful financial industry alive. It is the biggest constitutional and economic change of this generation and will have repercussions for our children and our grandchildren. The people of these islands are resilient and resourceful, but they will need every ounce of that resilience to survive and then adapt to the changes that Brexit could bring.

Two specific changes illustrate the problem. The first is a dramatic change in the way that we are governed. Scotland has a devolved parliament at Holyrood. There is much that this parliament lacks, but within the strict limitations laid down by the devolution settlement it does give the people of Scotland a measure of autonomy.

That is about to change. When the UK departs the EU, powers that are currently held at Brussels (on food and packaging for example) will be brought back. But not to Holyrood. They will stick – as Theresa May has made clear – in Westminster. The new ‘UK single market’ will be dominated by the interests of London, not those of Scotland. This will be bad for all of us, but perhaps especially bad for the fish industry in Scotland (see https://www.strath.ac.uk/research/internationalpublicpolicyinstitute/ourblog/march2017/brexitpowersandthescottishparliamentthecaseofagricultureandfisheries/). 

The people of Scotland are about to see their parliament dismembered by Brexit.

The second change is worse. Because it will affect, one way or another, every family in Scotland. Brexit will smash the economy. We will lose the EU grants that have helped to pay for our roads, ports and infrastructure. Our universities will lose research funding, and we are already suffering from a brain drain and a carer crisis as EU nationals look for jobs in countries that allow freedom of movement. Our workers will lose the protection that EU safety and workers’ rights legislation has brought them. And, ironically, our hospitals and care centres will lose the EU migrant staff who provide a bedrock of care. Companies will lose the ability to recruit specialists across the wide EU talent pool – and that will mean a further erosion of productivity for Scotland’s businesses.

All of this because David Cameron could not bring his Tory party round to understanding the benefits of EU membership. Perhaps now he realises the damage he has done. Then again, given the Tories’ instant conversion from ‘Remainers’ to ‘Leavers’, perhaps not.

How can Scotland escape from the turmoil and damage of Brexit? We can't. We will be hit just as badly as our friends and families in England. But we can allow ourselves one glimmer of hope. A tiny light at the end of the dark Brexit tunnel. That light is shining on an independent Scotland, able to stand up and take its own decisions on how it wants to be, how it wants to relate to our many friends across the water in Europe. 

So no, I will never give up on any of the democratic, transparent, honest and fair means we have of winning for the people of Scotland the right to govern their own country. It is, truly, the light at the end of the Brexit tunnel.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Turncoat Theresa



Do you trust her? With the Brexit negotiations?

Imagine; negotiate with 27 countries, each with their own cultures, beliefs, politics, priorities and pressure groups. Deal with thousands of issues from the big ones like fishing and energy down to the tiny details like animal vaccination (the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has warned that Brexit will mean a shortage of trained vets).


Meanwhile hold back the hostile hordes at home; the UKIPpers, the City lobbyists, the unions and the warring factions of the Tory party. Och yes, and construct Empire 2.0 too. And create the low-tax, no welfare Singapore of the North Atlantic while you are at it.



All of this would be a lifetime challenge for a Prime Minister with a clear vision and the charisma to lead the people of the British Isles into this bright new future. 

But Theresa May?



Theresa May of the policy wobbles? Theresa May who has – this from the Financial Times – made nine (yes, 9) significant policy U-turns since she came into power? Theresa May of the double speak; Turncoat Theresa who said she would help the ‘Just About Managing’ JAMS and then introduced the Rape Clause, which means that if a poor working woman has a third child she will have to ‘manage’ with £2,500 less.



I don’t trust her. And she is asking me to trust her with my life – my life as an EU immigrant here in Catalonia. (Actually, she is not, because the Tories broke another election pledge and did not give Britons living in the EU the right to vote. So I can go hang, as far as Turncoat Theresa is concerned.)



But you, who can vote. Do you really want to give your vote to Turncoat Theresa?










Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Poor Evidence



When Mrs Thatcher came into power in 1979 she, with Sir Keith Joseph, introduced a set of policies which are now known as ‘neoliberal’. The core idea was to cut back on government and reduce tax for the wealthy to encourage them to invest more in business. The wealth would ‘trickle down’ to the poor.

Westminster governments since then have all followed the same policy. Whether they were Tory or Labour, they continued to believe that government should be cut back – and that tax on income was bad for the country (they meant, bad for votes…)

So by now, 38 years of neoliberal policies later, you’d expect to see some pretty good results. You know, evidence that wealth had in fact trickled down.

The data on wealth and income inequality from the Office of National Statistics goes back to 1978. The key measure is the ‘Gini coefficient’ https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/datasets/nowcastinghouseholdincomeintheuk

The Gini coefficient is a measure of the way in which different groups of households receive differing shares of total household income. A higher Gini coefficient means greater inequality of household incomes, a lower Gini means more equality.

In 1979, when Mrs Thatcher came into power, the Gini coefficient for non-retired households in the UK was 24.5. Since then it has risen steadily, and in 2014-15, the last full year of data, it was 33.2. That is more than one third (35.5%) more inequality than at the start of the neoliberal experiment.

Failure. The neoliberal experiment failed. Wealth did not trickle down. It floated up. (You don’t need statistics to tell you this. Spend an afternoon at one of Scotland’s busy foodbanks and you’ll see the real human suffering behind the Gini data.)

You would think that decent, honest politicians would admit the failure. Confess that Tory and Labour neoliberalism has not worked, and admit that they are looking for an alternative.

Wrong. Brexit Britain is built on neoliberal policies. The ‘Singapore’ model is low tax, little government and little welfare. And a ‘Hard Brexit’ means more austerity because (a) Scotland will lose its currently relatively generous EU grants and (b) the UK will lose businesses, and thus tax income, to the EU.

In heading for Hard Brexit, the Tories are not only condemning people in Scotland to more and deeper poverty. 

They are also fighting the failure of their 38-year experiment.