Vote! On EU membership

On Tuesday morning, having had my fill of constitutional politics over the weekend at SNP conference, I decided to stop blogging on all things independence for a week or so.  There are after all many other political and topical issues which get neglected – and some, believe it or not, of greater current import than what will happen two years’ hence.  So, I tweeted this.

Before two SNP MSPs resigned the whip over the decision in the Great NATO Debate.

Before the Depute First Minister stood up in Parliament to announce, among other things, that she had commissioned specific legal advice on independent Scotland’s right (or otherwise) to continue or join the European Union.

Before someone remembered that the First Minister had been interviewed by Andrew Neil in March and appeared to suggest that such legal advice was already available to the Scottish Government.

Before Labour issued a press release accusing the FM of being a “bare-faced” liar.  And before the FM was dragged back to the Parliamentary Chamber to explain himself.

Since then, the political chat has been of little else.  And the debate on our constitutional future remains fixated on procedural matters of little interest to people in their daily lives.  The big issue of substance – whether or not membership of the EU is desirable, either as part of the UK or if we go it alone, remains sidelined.

We are almost oblivious up here that this is fast becoming a key matter in UK politics.  This week, Westminster debated the desirability of continuing EU membership for the UK in a move engineered by backbench Conservative MPs.  There is an irony here in that by the time we get to independence, the UK itself might not be a member, or at least be negotiating its way out of membership.  Some of the semantics dominating the constitutional debate might be moot by 2016.

As a fully paid up Europhile and indeed, advocate of European Union membership, all this little islander stuff worries me. I don’t get why others are so hostile to the idea and the reality of a strong, enduring and close economic, social and political union.  The Tories, reverting to type, have signalled this issue as a key political one for them in the run up to the UK General Election in 2015.  Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary Teresa May signalled intent to repatriate justice powers, conveniently ignoring the fact that such inter-European co-operation on terrorism, human trafficking, intelligence and policing is vital to our security and well-being.  Without it and powers such as the European Arrest Warrant, we will be fighting organised crime in arms, drugs and human trade in particular, with one hand tied behind our backs. Tackling paedophilia and its cyber nature is one area where policing across states, without boundaries is absolutely essential.

Yet, they do appear to have tapped into a public mood of disenchantment with EU membership.  The most recent Eurobarometer conducted in June 2012 found that almost as many people in the UK thought membership a bad thing as thought it a good thing (30% compared to 33% respectively).  And when asked to cite the most important elements that make up European identity, the views of UK respondents differed from respondents across the EU, not just in content but also in enthusiasm.

Our distrust appears to be borne of ignorance, largely helped by an unwilling and disengaged UK media, which fails to report anything meaningful of what goes on over there in Brussels and Strasbourg.  When they do report – as the Daily Mail and its ilk are wont to – the line is inherently negative and often ill and mis-informed.  When asked in the Eurobarometer to say when the next European elections will be held, only 7% of UK respondents knew they would be in 2014 with over three-quarters saying they didn’t know the date, and 63% in the UK couldn’t name any European institutions.  We know and care little of what goes on in our name across the water, it seems.

We do not have a Scottish breakdown for the Eurobarometer but public opinion here also appears to have shifted from generally positive to at best, lukewarm in terms of an independent Scotland being a member of the EU.  One of the reasons might be that no one, in any party, has begun the process of explaining what membership means, what being independent outwith EU membership means, and indeed, how we as an independent country might arrive at either destination.  And until the parties allow us to weigh up the options and look at the positives and negatives and decide for ourselves, we will remain none the wiser.

The No camp has a particular vested interest in keeping the matter of EU membership firmly on the process.  Would an independent Scotland automatically assume membership with no changes to current budgetary arrangements and opt-outs, or would we have to apply with the conditions of adherence to Schengen and to join the Euro when we meet the criteria coming into play?  For the No camp to seek to use the implications of having to apply afresh for membership to further scare monger the Scottish people into accepting the status quo is disingenuous.  It ignores the very serious attempts going on down south to withdraw the UK wholesale from membership and also ignores the fact that with our resources, an independent Scotland would be welcomed into the EU with open arms.  Spain might be blustering now, but it is hardly going to be in a dominant position politically to call the shots on this.  One of the things which the EU does very well, which is rather alien to politics here, is compromise;  ways are always found of squaring circles and accommodating difficult issues and disagreement.  That’s the beauty of being in a collective – the small nations often have as much muscle and power as the big ones.

But to get to a place where we are able to weigh all this up, we need to get into the substantive debate about the implications of membership.  Currently, we are stuck in second gear with the dominant political issue of the day being who sought advice on what and when.  The parties might wish to stay where we are, forever revving our engines but going nowhere fast, but it will not enable the Scottish people to arrive at our chosen constitutional destination confident that we chose the correct route.

We need a debate here in Scotland on EU membership, both as a constituent part of the UK and as a potentially independent state.  I know what I’d vote for in a referendum in either circumstance.  What’s your view?

How Gordon Brown – and the No camp – long for yesterday

They sent film crews from London and political journalists queued for a glimpse.  Such was the reception for a hitherto unspotted big beast at the independence debate watering hole.

Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, still MP for Kirkcaldy, has had little to say about anything much since his return to the back benches in 2010.  But he is held in high regard – as a policy intellectual and as a thoughtful politician who put ideas into action.  So his lecture at the Edinburgh Book Festival might have been worth listening to then?

Only if you readily accept political and historical revisionism.  Only if you believe in yesterday.

I have only seen the section of Gordon Brown’s speaking notes which cover independence: he had more to say about internationalism and interdependence apparently and that in itself, would have been interesting to hear/see.

But the bit on independence – or rather, the Union – is fascinating for everything it is not.  For every journalist who spent a day getting to Edinburgh to hear the “great man speak”, sadly it was a bit of a wasted journey.

Brown is correct in stating that this debate “must start from first principles” but what he laid out as fact in terms of what motivated and led to the “British Union” was actually a highly politicised and personal take on how we got to where we are today.  Ask any two politicians, historians or commentators what drove the Union and inevitably, you get very different answers.  And Brown’s first principles are derived from his essentially UK experience of politics, rather than from a primarily Scottish perspective:  another inevitability, given that he has spent almost his entire political life there rather than here.

He aimed to construct a modern case for the Union based on his assertion that it is unique, and that its uniqueness has made it successful and therefore, worth keeping.  Attempts to replicate the Union elsewhere, specifically in Europe and USA, have not been as successful.  What makes our union unique?  The fact that “Scottish ideas of justice and community” combined with “traditional English ideas of ordered liberty and individualism” to create not only “common political rights” but also “common social and economic rights”  – the much reported “pooling and sharing of resources“.

In one sweeping generalisation, Gordon Brown writes out of history a strong liberal tradition in Scotland, ignores – astonishingly – that one of the greatest exponents of individualism was a Fifer and erstwhile of his constituency and disappears the Chartists, the suffragettes, the home rulers, the anti-slavery campaigners, the social reformers and the trade unionists, many of which movements began in England and Wales.

To compound matters, he suggests that this uniqueness means Britain is a more progressive union when contrasted with the European Union or the USA:

In other multinational states like the European Union, these common social and economic rights – and this pooling and sharing of resources – does not exist to the same degree. So, as the tables show, inequalities between nations in Europe are so deep that the typical citizen of the richest state Luxembourg has six times the income of the poorest, Bulgaria. And the reason for the difference with Britain is that we have created a social market while Europe still has little more than a single market. And then in Asia, as the tables also show, the gulf between nations on the same continent is so glaring that the richest country has income levels per citizen more than thirty eight times that of the poorest.

Even in the USA, as the enclosed table shows, a federal statewhich is made up of regions not nations, inequalities are greater with the typical citizen of the richest state earning more than twice the income of their neighbour in the poorest.

I mention all these federal and multinational states to show the uniqueness of what has been achieved in Britain. Inequalities between Scotland and England have narrowed to the point that the typical Scottish citizen has an income of over 20,000 a year just like the English citizen and Scottish GDP per head is 96 per cent of English GDP per head.

And even when we look at states which border each other like Mexico and the USA, Singapore and Malaysia, and Spain and Morocco there is no natural tendency to converge.

Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland stand out as countries that have done more than anyone to minimise the differences in average income per head. We have a long way to go if we are to reduce inequalities within each nation but we have gone a long way in minimising inequalities between each nation within the British Union. We have done so in a progressive way by establishing minimum legal rights of citizenship; then common and equal social rights of citizenship; then common and equal economic rights of citizenship; and from the pooling and sharing of risks and resources.

There are grains of truth here – and of interesting argument – but as we all do, Gordon Brown selects facts carefully to prove his case.  He also appears oblivious to the very real contribution that the European Union has made and is making to social and economic rights in the UK, a contribution often made possible by the efforts of his own MEP colleagues.

His argument glosses over the inconvenient truth that the UK had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, with attempts to kibosh its legally binding status made by the Labour Government in which he was a pivotal figure.  Indeed, the negotiation of a protocol to ensure the Charter did not extend the powers of the European Court of Justice over UK law succeeded – diminishing the potential impact of the Charter to protect our legal, social and economic rights of citizenship – while he was Prime Minister.

Moreover, the EU budget works hard to try and address the economic inequalities he refers to.  Thus, poorer nations and regions receive a bigger pot of funding.  He should know this, given that he top-sliced the UK’s Objective 3 strand repeatedly in order to fund the New Deal.

But his amnesia is greatest when addressing the issue of inequality.  Yes, there may be less financial and economic inequality across borders, but only if you focus on the averages.  And it is not good enough to blithely acknowledge that there is more to be done to address inequality within nations and regions, when you spent thirteen of the last fifteen years in a pivotal and privileged political position to do something about it.  Under a Labour Government, in which he was either Chancellor or Prime Minister, inequality on these islands grew.  Not just between those at the top and the bottom, but across the social classes and throughout the nation states and regions.  In case, he had forgotten.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies conducts an annual analysis of poverty and inequality and its statistics show that despite Gordon Brown’s and others’ efforts through the use of levers like benefits and tax credits, income inequality grew under 13 years of Labour, with the gap yawning between those at the very top and those at the very bottom.

Indeed, the most recent analysis suggests that in its first year, the Coalition Government produced the sharpest fall in income inequality since 1962 “reversing the increase…under the previous Labour government“.  The reason is not an improvement in living standards – 2010-11 saw sharp falls in household income – nor the impact of redistributive policies, but the consequence of recession, depressing earnings and incomes.  These are falling in all groups but are falling fastest in the top earning brackets.

There is no denying that over the last thirty years – until now – our living standards have improved and that some aspects of inequality were addressed.  Poverty was reduced, particularly for children and pensioners, under Gordon Brown’s watch.  These are significant achievements.

But is the harmonisation of inequality really a benchmark of success?  The poor of Glasgow might well be as poor as people living in Swansea or Birmingham.  The rich of Edinburgh might be as well off as people in the same circumstances and similar post codes in London and Belfast.  But the poor of Glasgow are still substantially worse off than the rich of Edinburgh, with there still being a huge concentration of wealth in a tiny pocket of the whole of the UK, in and around London.  Levelling the playing field has done little to close the gaps.

Moreover, these kind of achievements could have been made without the Union: our success in economic and social terms is actually only loosely dependent on the existence of a political Union. Indeed, it is arguable that many steps in this direction have been made in spite of, rather than because of the Union, coming largely from measures taken at European level.

Had Scotland been independent, we would still have had a working time directive, improvements in workers’ conditions, as well as the ability to move freely around Europe, claim benefits and seek health services.  For every argument which bolsters the Union’s case as a driver and deliverer of economic and social rights on these islands, there is another to deconstruct it.

And any such success has proven fragile – much less robust than other countries in Europe and around the world which are riding out the financial crisis with less economic and social damage.  If anything this current economic crisis has demonstrated that we are not necessarily better together, better able to withstand buffeting by external economic forces, in particular.

This is no modern case for Britain:  as the small print warns, previous performance does not guarantee future success.  Who is to say that Scotland, as a member of the European Union or the successor alliance which emerges after the Eurocrisis, might not be better placed to deliver economic and social rights for our people in the future, which tackle all the inequalities in our society and communities, with the rest of the UK doing likewise?  Those agin say that independence would erect unhelpful barriers with our biggest trading partner, the rest of the UK. But ongoing EU membership – for both – would ensure this would not happen.  Our economic interdependence would ensure that political independence worked.

Like so many in the No camp, it is the politics, rather than the economic or social arguments, which bind Gordon Brown to the Union.  The politics comes first and arguments are woven to fit.  So much of their time and energy is spent looking back, making the case for the future on a revised working of the past.

And while the pro-Unionists spend the early days of this campaign longing for yesterday, we can’t stop thinking about tomorrow.  It’ll soon be here – and it’ll be better than before.

Guestpost: Pete Wishart MP on why our musicians need ACTA

In response to David Martin MEP’s piece last week on ACTA, and to mark World Intellectual Property Week, the burd is delighted to welcome a fantastic guest post from Pete Wishart with a different view.  Pete is SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire and is the party’s Westminster spokesperson on the constitution, home affairs, culture, media, sport and international development.  He was the keyboard player in Runrig at the height of the band’s fame and is now a member of MP4, a parliamentary “super-group” made up of MPs from all parties.

Imagine if you will, a perfect Saturday afternoon shopping, and you come across your local record store and in the window is a sign – Everything inside absolutely free, open all hours. That would of course be utter madness and totally unsustainable, but this is what goes on every hour of every day on the internet.

Recorded works, films, TV programmes and digital books simply taken for nothing. Artists, musicians and authors go unrewarded for the work they provide and their works reduced to valueless commodities. Worse than that it is illegal. But the Internet service providers (ISPs) and the search engines that direct people to those illegal sites are not prepared to do anything about it.

Not only does it lose artists revenue, it costs jobs. Our creative industries are just about the fastest growing part of our economy and our recovery from recession could be predicated on growth in this sector. The creative industries account for more than 8% of GDP with around 1.3m jobs in the UK. Up to a quarter of a million of these jobs will be at risk if nothing is done about copyright infringement by 2015.

In Scotland ,our creative economy is if anything more important to us as evidenced for example by Dundee’s computer games sector.

But every effort to address piracy and copyright infringement is vigorously opposed. Self appointed digital rights champions have emerged that have led the protests against each and every measure introduced at Westminster, Europe and the States. It is usually done, almost nonsensically, in the name of “civil liberties” and in opposition to “draconian laws”. Myths are invented and we are then invited to accept them as an orthodoxy.

The response to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) fits very neatly into this package and follows the exaggerated indignation to a tee. And what a lot of nonsense has been said about ACTA. ACTA is, in fact, a non-binding agreement that doesn’t even apply to the UK, which has its own Intellectual Property enforcement following the passing of the Digital Economy Act in 2010.

Contrary to what is being claimed, ISPs are not obliged to monitor traffic; ACTA contains no web-blocking provisions; ACTA won’t block generic drugs. But that doesn’t seem to matter to those opposed. They will oppose ACTA, just like they previously opposed the Digital Economy Act, just like they will oppose the next Act and the one after that.

In fact, they will oppose any measure that seeks to ensure that our artists are justly rewarded and our creative industries secure the tools they require to tackle piracy. They, of cours,e say they “oppose” piracy and “respect” copyright but are not prepared to support any measure that will address infringement.

In the UK, the Government will soon bring forward the measures agreed in the DEA. This was the “last” ACTA if you like and I remember the almost identical fury of the digital rights lobby. But people won’t be cut off from the internet as is alleged (the scare tactic is a standard approach of our digital rights friends).

What those found stealing content will receive is a very nice letter asking them to please stop. To stop taking this stuff for nothing because it is illegal and harms the industries they love. These notifications, it is reckoned will address the bulk of piracy. Tougher responses may be required for the more recalcitrant freeloaders but hopefully they too will cease their illegal activity.

If we do nothing as the opponents of ACTA/DEA/THE NEXT ACT suggest, we’re back to that free online shop of my first paragraph.

Your average musician survives on less than £16,000 a year. Jobs are being lost so people can secure their work for nothing. We require the tools to grow our creative sector and ensure that artists are properly rewarded.

This week is World Intellectual Property Week. The main message is that online products, ideas and creative industries should be given the same protection as anything you’d find in a shop in a retail park.

That’s what’s fair and that’s what this is all about.