Thursday, 14 June 2018

Europe Is Our Playground

I sometimes wonder what my grandparents would make of my life. My grandfathers both died in the late 60s just before I was born so they never used an ATM or owned a colour television or told the time with a digital watch. They also never got to meet Switzerland's premier Brexit and Scottish independence blogger. That's something we have in common because as I only just scraped in to the top 100 of Swiss-based combination Brexit/Scottish independence blogs I never got an invitation to hang out with the premier league. Sometimes, being snubbed really hurts.

I would imagine my grandparents would be astonished by the modern world. I'm sure they'd be amazed that their offspring would go on to have children with university degrees and do all sorts of crazy nonsense for a job. They would probably wonder why anyone would ever need heterogeneous computing in their lives and I doubt they would understand why anyone would gawp for hours on end at a simulated world that doesn't physically exist.  My grandfathers were both workers in the Glasgow shipyards so it was already quite something for my parents to be allowed to stay at school to sit their Highers before entering the world of work. I know that they prized education very highly so I guess they'd be quite astounded at how quickly my family went from one end of the education spectrum to the other. Society has changed in leaps and bounds. Life today is not as it was 45 years ago. It's much better now.

When I was born the war was just 25 years distant. I would guess my grandfathers would have been pretty suspicious of Germany back in 1970. Even if they'd had the funds to travel abroad, a weekend break in Berlin would not have been on their list. I can't imagine them sipping cappuccinos in Prenzlauer Berg or travelling to Bavaria to see a German/French chanson rockabilly band sing silly songs in a multitude of languages. My grandparent's generation experienced the Luftwaffe bombing the shipyards and their kids were evacuated to farms. They could never have guessed that the spheres of our lives would grow and grow from the streets of Scotstoun until they encompass all of Western Europe, nor that Germany would one day become the de facto leader of the free world. It would have been unimaginable that Scots would look forward to German beer served by Germans in German cafes in Edinburgh and Glasgow. They couldn't have guessed that it would become normal for Scots to have colleagues and friends and partners from all over Europe. The size of our playground was unimaginable when they were alive - what was normal in the 1970s is no longer normal. We are no longer restricted to a few streets, to a handful of trades, to summer holidays in Largs. Everything has changed.

The thought that an Entoure would go to live in the beautiful city of Munich to participate in a pan-European network of quantum physicists would have been utterly fantastical in 1970. Yet that is precisely what happened to me in the mid-90s. Back then, freedom of movement of people was new and the EU had to take steps to encourage its citizens to take advantage of the new freedoms of the post-Maastricht EU. The idea that UK citizens can cross borders and take their professional skills and families wherever they want is commonplace today. Everybody's at it. It is part of our lives. I reckon my grandfathers would never have believed it if they'd been told that their grandchildren would live and work in Europe. If you were lucky in the old days you only really went to Switzerland for tuberculosis treatment. Nowadays, you can come here to hike in the mountains, cycle up a mountain pass or repeatedly bang your head against an office desk while trying to debug a complex software stack. Hah, it's not all good, you know!

Like almost everyone else in Scotland I have uncles and aunts in Canada. That must have been a huge decision because Canada is a long way away and travelling back to Scotland would have been prohibitively expensive. Moving to Canada back then meant a real break from family and friends. I can't really imagine doing that, to be honest. Even today, Canada feels far away. Even if I wanted to go, getting a work visa is non trivial and couples your rights to your employer. It just doesn't feel like my world. My world feels European, not North American. This is something that can't be said enough: we Scots are European. Despite the language difference, Edinburgh has more in common with Zurich than with Toronto. Likewise, Glasgow has more in common with Berlin than with New York.  These homes from home are right on our doorstep, just an hour away. Get it while you can.

The EU has always been so much more than a trading arrangement. It is as much cultural as it is legal and political and commercial. Maybe England doesn't feel culturally European but Scotland most definitely is. Our connections with Europe are going to be weakened when the UK leaves the EU. It will be harder for us to visit them and for them to visit us. It will be harder to live and work in the countries that most share our hopes and fears, who laugh at the things we laugh at, who have the same understanding of life/work balance. It will be harder to fall in love with the people we are most likely to fall in love with. Everywhere we look, barriers are busily being erected to human experience in all its forms. 

Brexit means Scotland can no longer face the European Continent in the way it does now. The freedoms and opportunities and connections we take for granted will simply stop when laws are struck out and treaties annulled and legal barriers erected in their place. I can't begin to express how sad this makes me. A few years ago I walked across a bridge over the Danube from Slovakia to Austria.  No checks, no barriers; just rollerbladers, walkers and cyclists.  The bridge replaced watchtowers and barbed wire that had stopped anyone crossing the border during the Communist years.  Imagine knocking down that bridge today?  Well, that's precisely what the UK is doing and it will affect Scotland most keenly. 

The devolution arrangement we've enjoyed for the past 20 years only makes sense for as long as Scotland and rUK are aligned through shared EU law. Leaving the EU opens the possibility for that alignment to be undermined if Edinburgh makes policy choices that London doesn't. That cannot happen, however, if the UK is to negotiate a post-Brexit path. The United Kingdom will need to become more united if it is to survive the post-Brexit years. After all, the sunny uplands of global trade cannot flourish if the UK has a fractured regulatory framework, if fracking concessions are regional rather than national. It cannot happen if the people of the UK cannot form a binding consensus about the kind of country they want to live in. That means Scotland will need to become more British and less European in its outlook. We will need to align more with our closest geographical partner because we will have fewer opportunities to align with anyone else. If we don't want to align, then we will be forced to do so. Westminster has already made that perfectly clear.

I'm despondent about the future. Europe was our playground but that cannot continue for much longer. Instead, our future is to be confined to the United Kingdom. Our world will shrink, rather than expand. Our world will be a country dominated by a particularly nasty and small-minded strain of English nationalism. It is a world where MPs are traitors and saboteurs, where Ministers of State appropriate unprecedented powers with barely a squeak of protest, where people are berated on the street for speaking a foreign language. It will be a world without space for new ideas, where human rights are a dirty word. It will be a mono-culture that ought to have died in the 1950s.

The freedoms and opportunities brought about by EU membership would, I'm sure, delight my grandparents. They would find it easier to understand the modern world and all of its complexities than to comprehend those who took it all away.

Over and out,


PS I rarely talk about identity on this blog but this post was obviously entirely about identity.  I no longer feel British and soon I will be excluded from the European family of states.  I feel Scottish but there is no Scottish state, I have no Scottish passport. I live in Switzerland, yet I am not Swiss, even though I love living here. Brexit has made me a citizen of nowhere.  Oh, the irony.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Beat The Clock

In the last few months of non-blogging I started to ponder buying an apartment here in Switzerland. I didn't get very far, though. The problem, you see, is that time is running out. A quick calculation revealed that buying a house is not in my financial interests because I will pay less in rent over my remaining lifetime than I would in purchasing equivalent property. It wasn't a huge existential shock or anything like that but it did make me realise that decisions have a time-frame of their very own: miss the deadline and the decision is made for you. It's also too late to become a train driver or a dentist, though neither really appeal. Being closer to 50 than 40 means it is probably too late to have a family because I don't want to be an almost codger, complaining about my dodgy knees when my kids want to be chased around the park. I don't mourn any of that but I do have to reflect that I've rarely actively taken decisions. Apart from the decision to leave academic research and then later on to move to Switzerland, I've pretty much drifted through life. I'd say everything turned out well but it isn't advice I'd pass on to the younger me because it could have been very different if luck hadn't been on my side.

Why am I banging on about life decisions and their timeline? Well, it's already too late for Brexit. The UK will leave the EU on whatever terms the EU believes benefit the EU most. That will happen because the UK has failed to reach a single decision. It has failed to make any decisions because half of the government (and the opposition) refuse to admit the trade-offs involved, while the other half are still trying to understand the issue in any meaningful way at all. The EU, meanwhile, has gone right ahead with writing up the Withdrawal Agreement. They will present that to the UK and the UK will either capitulate or repeat the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal. Given that the UK has failed to make the decisions required for no-deal we can be certain that they will capitulate. The decision will be made by the EU on behalf of the UK. This is what taking back control looks like.

Scotland also has a decision to make. It needs to decide whether it wants to remain in the UK or the EU. Is time running out? Yes, it certainly is and if we don't make a decision in time then, just as it was for my property-magnate fantasies and with Brexit, it will be made for us. It will be made for us by Westminster who will choose that Scotland remains part of the UK. They will choose that because it also involves no decision at all.

Indecision will be the undoing of independence. We're getting perilously close to the end of the countdown clock without a solution to the conundrum.  Everyone on the indy side agrees that there is a political mandate for an independence referendum during the lifetime of the current Scottish Parliament. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament had a vote on this very issue. That mandate will end when the current Scottish Parliament ends in 2021. At the time of writing, that is just short of 3 years into the future. Plenty of time, right? Wrong.

How long does it take to organise a referendum? 3 weeks? 3 months? 1 year? 18 months? We've seen quite a few hasty referendums in the last few years. First off, there was a referendum in the Crimea that was organised in around 12 weeks. Does anyone think that upheld the highest standards of democracy? Let's face it, it was a sham, the very opposite of a democratic event. The Catalonian referendum was barely better. It was a badly managed referendum with insufficient time for voter registration, poor ballot box security,  lack of voter anonymity and allowed multiple votes to be cast at multiple voting points. It cannot be said to have upheld high standards of democracy, even before Rajoy's goons came along and needlessly broke it up. I don't want any of that to happen in Scotland because stable democracy can never flourish from an undemocratic event. If we are to have a 2nd indy ref then I'd like to see it uphold the highest standards of democracy. To do otherwise is to guarantee a poor outcome, no matter which way the vote goes.

Let's imagine we were all tasked with setting up a referendum. What steps might be required? Well, the first thing we need to do is decide the question. How might we do that? Well, we might invite interested groups to submit questions they believe sum up the choices on offer. Some will want the question to be skewed towards a Yes for change, others might want it skewed towards a Yes for the status quo. "Scotland should be an independent country" is quite different from "Scotland should remain part of the UK", even if they both lead to the same outcome. "Scotland should remain in a)UK b) EU" is a completely different question. Choosing the question requires studies on the political bias of words, reports being drawn up and distributed, and rounds of negotiated compromise. That won't happen in 3 weeks.

Who will get to vote in this referendum? 16-18 year olds? EU nationals? EU nationals with permanent residence status? Scots living outside Scotland? How do we define Scots living outside Scotland? We won't decide any of that in 3 months. What steps will be made to ensure that everyone in the chosen franchise has adequate opportunity to register to vote? TV adverts? Leaflets? Social media campaigns? Should those be in Gaelic? German? Polish? We won't do any of that in 6 months.

What about democratic legitimacy? We really do need the referendum to have democratic legitimacy because without that it will be all too easily contested (or just ignored) by anyone unhappy with the outcome. To be honest, if Rajoy wasn't an authoritarian blowhard he would have done exactly that. All of this means that the referendum must be backed by the authority of primary legislation. We could easily start a debate about whether or not that can come from the Scottish Parliament or must come from Westminster. The problem is that independence is most easily achieved with the cooperation of Westminster.  For example, to be an independent nation we first need to be accepted into the UN.  That will be impossible to do if a permanent member of the UN Security Council gives us the status of a breakaway territory akin to Abkhazia or Transistria.  I am, of course, arguing that the best outcome starts with an act of Westminster primary legislation. How long will that take? I'm sure everyone has noticed that Westminster is preoccupied with Brexit and is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. How's that project estimate getting along? 12 months minimum, I'd say. That sounds about right because the 2014 referendum took 18 months from its first announcement to the day of the referendum itself.

Let's say that a concerted political and diplomatic effort to stage an indy ref began with immediate effect. What dates might work? Given that the 2014 indy ref took 18 months to organise we might set the earliest date to be October, 2019.  For perspective, that will be 6 months after the UK has left the EU by the automatic process of law. The UK might already be rapidly diverging from EU and EEA membership criteria. If we're being honest, and despite the urgency, October, 2019 is an unrealistic target because both parliaments are about to close for an extended summer break. Let's reschedule for December, 2019. Nope, Christmas is in the way. We can also rule out January and February, 2020 because they would involve campaigns that overlap with the New Year. Right, then, March 2020, one full year after the UK leaves the EU. Yes, the earliest achievable opportunity to have an indy ref is March, 2020. What is the latest opportunity? To avoid interference with the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections, the latest opportunity is around March, 2021. We need to be aware, though, that the proposed post-Brexit standstill arrangement will end on December, 2020. It is imperative to complete the indy ref before that date. I think we have our window of opportunity: March, 2020 to November, 2020.

If March, 2020 only happens if diplomatic and political efforts begin with immediate effect, then it follows that November, 2020 only happens if that effort begins in the next 8 months or so.  Time has already run out on Brexit.  We can no longer have an indy ref before the UK departs the EU.  We can still have an indy ref before the UK substantively leaves EU regulation but that windows closes in just 8 months time.  I wasn't kidding when I said that time is running out. 

Over and out,


PS The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe are clear that a referendum ought to have a 12 month life-cycle.  All details here.

PPS There is an excellent discussion of the Electoral Commission's formulation of the EU referendum question in "Brexit Time" by Kenneth Armstrong.  If you ever wondered why the words "Remain" and "Leave" were on the ballot paper then go ahead and get the book.  Still not convinced?  Well, if you  want to know why 16-18 year olds were denied the vote then go ahead and get the book. Still not convinced?  IT HAS AN ENTIRE CHAPTER TITLED "LITIGATING BREXIT".  I don't know why I bother with you people.

PPPS I took liberties with the actualite in my opening paragraph.  Mortgages here are effectively indefinite loans and only the very rich plan to complete repayment.  A 30% deposit is the norm and many opt for the minimum of interest repayments.  The owned portion of a house is subject to a tax on the theoretical rent and calculated as though it was extra income.  The intention, of course, is to prevent property speculation.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Whack-A-Mole Brexit

I blogged quite a while back that Brexit has become repetitive.  It is turning into a game of political whack-a-mole with the same issues turning up one after another on repeat.  Back when I started blogging the whack rate was just one or two shrews a month but as we progress to the more advanced stages of the Brexit process the game has become faster and faster.  It's now progressing at a rate way, way beyond the capacity of amateur bloggers.  The palette of issues and conundrums, however, remains exactly the same as it was back in July, 2016.  We are metaphorically bashing away at the same moles with the same word hammers.  The only difference between then and now is that nowadays we can go through several cycles of the entire mole genus before I've even written the introduction to a blog post.  It moves dangerously fast yet stands entirely still.  And it just goes on (and on and on).

Since I last blogged I had another attempt at trying to understand Labour policy on Brexit. I'm afraid to say that I had to abandon that one, too.  I need to accept defeat and admit that I have failed to decypher any semblance of rationality in their brainwrong gibberish.  More than that, though, in order to show just how off-the-chart they are on the bizarro-grotesque scale I need to bore everyone with a summary of basic rules about the WTO and and Most Favoured Nation status.  I can't be bothered writing it and I'm equally certain that nobody else can be bothered reading it. We've done all of this before on many, many occasions. Besides, anyone who reads this blog has already worked all this out for themselves. Do we need to do it again?  It's fun to have a right old laugh at the Labour Party but, as you might have guessed it, I'm not really in the mood for that.

If you're getting the impression that I'm fed up with Brexit then you'd be absolutely right.  I am fed up with it.  I got so fed up with it that I wrote about half of a post about the woeful state of journalism at The National.  Howzat for brinksmanship?  Honestly, The National suffers from utterly, utterly dreadful journalism.  Its deficiencies range from the most basic level of fact-checking all the way up to its ability to edit copy into words, sentences and paragraphs . It was kind of exciting to have a fresh topic until I remembered that I'd kind of done that already. Besides, is there value in attacking a newspaper that nobody ever reads?  I don't think there is so the post remains unfinished and unpublished. It shall stay that way.

Well, what shall I blog about?  Can I really put together an entire post about nothing at all?  Yes, I certainly can and it won't be the first time, either.  That's right, even a post about absolutely nothing turns out to be a sad repeat.  We are stuck on repeat.  We are so stuck on repeat that a link to the pop video "Stuck on Repeat" by Little Boots would be a repeat.  Even the jokes about repeats are repeats. There's a danger that Brexit will lead us into a recursive mirror world where our own reflection will eerily bounce around long after we have died of boredom.  Someone has to stay alive, though, to bash all those moles on the head.  Bagsy not me.

Everything is a repeat move in the game of Brexit whack-a-mole.  Remember the Japanese ambassador and his grave warnings about Brexit?  So much has (and hasn't) happened since then it's hard to believe it was only about 3 days ago.  Hang on, was that 3 days ago or 18 months ago?  Hah, got it, it was a repeat.  Remember cakeism? Well, it's alive and well, thank you very much, still being baked and still being eaten.  How about all those 3rd party agreements that will end for the UK on Brexit day?  Liam Fox has had a go at whacking that one with different mallets (he tried bi-lateral negotiations; he tried blaming the EU; he tried a technical note sent to all and sundry, he'll have another go soon enough).  Please, please don't get me started on the chemically washed chicken saga. It almost as though washing chicken with chemicals turns them into annoying, rubbery boomerangs. Fox encourages the hormone-injected mole out of its hole, only for Gove to give it an almighty whack in the sad hope it will make him PM.  I can't take this any longer. We need a rest.

I'm fed up. My Brexit reserves are exhausted. I have nothing to say that doesn't make me wince at the pain of repetition. Please forgive me if I spent most of the last month watching Foyle's War on ITV3. There are only a few episodes left but then the compulsion to blog will return.  What shall I blog about?  Brexit.  It will never, ever stop.

Over and out,


PS I shall probably blog about the Withdrawal Bill and how it is incompatible with the EU's guidelines on transition.  It is a tiny technical point but it is also something new (to me, at least) and not many people seem to be blogging about it (maybe because it is not very exciting but that was never a requirement for a blog post round here, as demonstrated by today's effort).

PPS I'm fed up with Brexit but I'm most definitely not fed up with life or descending into a melancholy or anything like that.  It's healthy to be fed up with Brexit.  This is a good sign. Schloss Entoure is a happy place. 

Monday, 22 January 2018

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn

This week I mainly tried to understand Labour policy on Brexit.  I'm sorry to say that I spent many, many hours on this and came to the conclusion that it is beyond my skills as a blogger.  No, something as elusive, as paradoxical, as untamed as Labour policy on Brexit cannot be expressed through the everyday medium of sentences and paragraphs.  If I could present my findings as a dance I would do that but I'm very sad to say that I can't dance.  If my ukulele skills were more advanced perhaps I could attempt to express Labour policy on Brexit with a jaunty, syncopated strum but they're not.  If you'd ever seen my attempts at drawing you would immediately know that my woeful art skills are definitely not up to the job. Pottery? Sorry, I have no clay experience. I'm running out of options now. Let's see, what's left?  Hmm, can I express Labour policy on Brexit through the medium of poetry?  Well, we'll never know unless I gave it a go. Et voila, here is my poem about Labour policy on Brexit.  Simply enjoy.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
it is disappointing
to learn that your librarian
style hides an authoritarian
more interested in isolation
than international relations.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
it is your patrician
outlook that I despise.
Your intent of a 70s Bennite reprise
will end my opportunities
in the European Communities.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
it is just too frustrating
to listen to your view
that single market means EU
and the mistakes that you made
about rules on state aid.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
it is to my chagrin
that you reject the distinction
between tariffs and friction,
between regulation at source
and the need for a border force.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
I'm fed up with you spreading
the lie of a correlation
between low wages and migration.
These are the values of UKIP and Powell
and their dispiriting scowl.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
when you accept Mogg's position
do you not wonder
if you have made a blunder
and now must fight
the policies of the far right?

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
what is your opinion
of my rights to study, to learn
to fall in love, to earn
throughout EFTA/EEA?
You want to take those rights away?

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,
this is a voter writing.
I care about facts,
not McDonnell's Momentum pacts.
Resign, retire, but stop digging trenches and
take up your rightful place ... on the back benches.

Over and out,


PS I might still post something on Labour's Brexit policy in the medium of sentences and paragraphs.  Then again, I might not.  It is hard to keep up with their collective madness and even harder to decipher it.  As it stands, my clumsy attempt merely adds to the confusion.

PPS I would love to hear other poems (on any topic you like) in the comments.

PPPS I'm aware the poem was more fun to write than to read but, hey, it's my blog so there might be more of this in the future. We amateur bloggers have a tendency towards tyranny.

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Worst Thing About Brexit

What is the worst thing about Brexit? Is it the xenophobia? The nasty strain of English nationalism? The return of a colonial mentality? Or is it the growing sense of mob rule? Could it be the bizarre popularity of 19th century mercantilism? If you're Scottish might it be the threat that Brexit presents to the devolution settlement? Or maybe you feel that your voice has been completely silenced? Perhaps you're concerned about a return to a society divided by class and ruled by self-styled country gents attired in mustard cords and union jack underwear? These things are all profoundly depressing but the worst thing by far is the fire-sale devaluation of expert advice.

The Cabinet reshuffle Theresa May really wanted to implement.Got any union jack pants, squire?
If you've ever read anything posted on this blog then you'll probably not be too surprised to learn that I trained as a scientist. I am definitely someone who values facts, documentary evidence and attention to detail. In fact, I might even qualify as one of those unhelpful experts who were inexpertly dismissed by Michael Gove during the EU referendum. Should he or his department ever require advice on hardware-accelerated interactive software or any of its applications I shall point him straight to my local ukulele club. I might as well point Michael Gove to some Swiss strummers because the real prize won by the Brexit campaigners was tacit public permission to form a government driven entirely by individual gut feeling.

Gove's remarks were far more than a throwaway riposte. The reality today is that the UK government is a collection of individuals acting on their own instincts without regard for facts, evidence or attention to detail. David Davis admitted that the decision to leave the Customs Union was reached entirely on "gut feeling". He then made a series of misleading remarks over the course of 15 months to give the impression that his department had completed a sectoral analysis of the impact of Brexit. He promised that would be done before starting the Article 50 process. In reality, his department has done no work at all beyond the collation of data already in the public domain and a sparse collection of references to EU Regulations and Directives that would be well-known to anyone working in their respective field. The sectoral analyses were bulked out with filler explaining that fishing businesses were mainly located near the coast and that the space industry was collaborative. Can we conclude that evidence is driving UK government policy? Not really, no. We might as well inspect the tea leaves.

Can it get any worse? Well, there is significant evidence that Theresa May confused the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the EU. During May's time as Home Secretary she repeatedly made disparaging remarks about the ECHR as she struggled and repeatedly failed to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan. The problem was that deporting Abu Qatada to Jordan would lead to his immediate arrest for historic offences and any subsequent trial would use evidence against him gained under torture. Deporting Abu Qatada to such a fate would be in breach of Article 6 and Article 3 of the ECHR, which respectively declare the right to a fair trial and prohibit degrading treatment. Theresa May's intentions were in clear breach of the ECHR. Her response was to hire more and more lawyers, at great expense, to try to find a way to legally subvert basic human rights. She went to court multiple times but each time she failed and became ever more frustrated. Oh how she must have hated all those annoying European judges and their concerns for human dignity. Eventually, she gave up and did what expert advice had told her to do on day one of this tragic affair - she sought legal assurances from Jordan that evidence gained under torture would not be used at Abu Qatada's trial. During this sorry process there was endless chatter from government insiders that the UK would suspend its membership of the Council of Europe, that the UK would leave the Council of Europe, that the UK should be free to ignore judgements of the European Court of Human Rights. The zinger is that until Thersa May claimed the CJEU as a red line she had barely mentioned it. Oh, Abu Qatada was found not guilty, if you're interested.

Can it get any worse? Well, when David Davis took office he thought his first job would be a tour of Europe to conduct trade negotiations with national leaders around the EU. He believed he would complete this by Brexit departure day. To be fair, he doesn't say that any more so I suppose he did listen to at least one expert on at least one occasion. Having said that, he could concoct a post-Brexit immigration policy based on a series of bi-lateral agreements with EU countries. He can do this because immigration policy and the rights of 3rd nation citizens to reside and work in EU nations is not an EU competence. I'm willing to bet that Davis doesn't know this because attention to detail is not his strong point. However, he should know this because UK immigration policy was at the heart of the decision to leave the EU. Moreover, he should know this because UK businesses are crying out for highly skilled workers from Germany and Denmark and Sweden. He should know all of this but he probably hasn't bothered to find out because the UK government has not yet formulated a post-Brexit immigration policy. That's right, 18 months after a vote to amend UK immigration policy there are zero agreed amendments to UK immigration policy.

Why are there no amendments to UK immigration policy? The answer is that ministers of the UK government cannot synchronise their intestinal tracts. Liam Fox says that the UK should import chemically washed chicken from the US then Michael Gove rules it out. Theresa May talks about transition periods and financial commitments on a public stage then Boris Johnson says the EU can go and whistle. Greg Hands proposes that the EU should remain in specific EU health initiatives regulated by the CJEU, despite CJEU being one of Therasa May's red lines. Theresa May signs an agreement with the EU to conclude Phase I talks then David Davis undermines everything by suggesting the detail isn't enforceable and the whole exercise merely a shared statement of intent. Theresa May underlines her pledge to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands then Amber Rudd initiates a study on the economic effect of reduced immigration. Let's not forget that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove failed to communicate the most basic government position on a UK national imprisoned abroad. In saner times any of these ministers would have been shown the door but here they are implementing their own policy in their personal kingdoms driven by their own gut feeling.

Instead of a functioning government with a defined set of manifesto pledges and evidence-base policies to realise them, there is a collection of mini-governments, each lording over their own fiefdom, acting sometimes in tandom, sometimes against the other mini-governments. Tory manifesto has been largely abandoned and in its place is a random number generator gone wild. The UK will seek bi-lateral trade deals with Pacific nations; the UK will join the Trans Pacific Partnership. The UK will protect the environment with bold environmental law; the UK will import hormone-injected beef and drive down costs. The UK will maintain the rights of workers; the UK will immediately repeal the EU Working Time Directive. The UK will maintain all phyto-sanitary standards to keep the NI border open; the UK will modify phyto-sanitary standards to align itself towards the US. The UK will maintain farm subsidies at CAP levels; the UK will abandon farm subsidies. The UK will strike trade deals and completely change its tariff structure; the UK will maintain its current tariff structure. The UK will be free to reduce VAT; the UK will maintain VAT at the EU minimum to keep the NI border free from VAT checks. This is not coherent governance.

Despite all this governmental chaos, the Labour Party is failing to take a lead in opinion polls. Why? Well, they are in a confused muddle very much the equal of the Tories. Their key policies change from week to week as Barry Gardiner and Kier Starmer and Tom Watson jostle for influence. The truth is that Labour have no substantive policy on the most pressing decisions to face the UK for 50 years. They would be equally terrible in power and the electorate know it full well. Does anyone buy their "jobs-first" Brexit? It certainly isn't backed by data or evidence. Once again, there's that Westminster gut feeling spewing its lunch all over partisan journalists at UK's tabloid newspapers.

This is by far the worst government and the worst parliament I have ever known. I might have disagreed with Margaret Thatcher's political philosophy, her manifesto pledges and the way she implemented them but she still ran a government with evidence and data. For example, her monetarist experiment of the early 80s was quietly abandoned when it was judged to have quantitatively failed.  It might have been abandoned far too late but at least someone was able to come to a judgement and someone was listening to it.  Are there any signs of this methodology today? Not really, no. Voters have no idea what they are voting for, the Prime Minister has no idea what her own Ministers are doing, those very Ministers are driven only by personal gut instinct. Meanwhile, expert advice has been decried as the intervention of saboteurs and rejected as unpatriotic. Everything is done with the justification of the "will of the people", yet nothing satisfies the "will of the people" because Brexit is nothing more than a battleground of ministerial influence and breakfast digestion processes.

There is no end to this. Brexit will trundle on and on for years to come, consuming logic and reason as it continues. If you're Scottish there is only one way out of this mess and that is to vote Yes in any future independence referendum. Good governance is important - it ensures prosperity, rights and opportunities for citizens. The UK is not going to experience any of that for many, many years to come. Where will it be by then?

Over and out,


Friday, 22 December 2017

Highs And Lows

Merry Christmas to all visitors to this blog.  It's time to take a short break from blogging so that I can properly concentrate on stuffing my face with nut roast, chocolate and whisky.  I hope everyone has similarly indulgent activities lined up for the festive season.

It's been a very odd year of highs and lows, ups and downs.  It seems that Brexit giveth then taketh awayeth righteth awayeth. Uh oh, that's me slurring my words already so let's get cracking with a quick review of all the highs and lows/ups and downs of 2017 before my fingers can only slap the keyboard like a forlorn seal.

One high point of the year was Theresa May losing her overall majority after calling a senseless General Election.  Boy, that was a delicious high.  Jeremy Corbyn, of course, immediately spoiled it by directing his party machine at the hardest Brexit possible.  The Labour Party had been granted an embarrassingly huge opportunity to take down the government and they missed it. They proceeded to miss it about 25 times in a row.  Boy, that was a depressing low and it keeps on getting lower by the day.

Gina Miller is a something of a hero.  She withstood death threats and persistent racist slurs to ensure that Parliament was given final say over whether Theresa May could begin the Article 50 process of withdrawal from the EU.  Her victory at the Supreme Court was a highlight of the year.  What did Parliament do?  They behaved like the supine, spineless, cowardly careerists we know them to be and voted for Brexit in a blink of an eye.  They let the government proceed despite there being no analysis of the effect of withdrawal from the EU, no plan or vision for the UK's future relationship with the EU, no preparation for the upcoming negotiations, and overwhelming opinion among MPs that withdrawal would lead to a poor outcome. Yes, that was a low.  To this day, I still don't think they understand the consequences of that pivotal vote.  That was the moment the UK lost control of the process and its own future.

Parliament did finally gets its act together, even if they are merely rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.  They managed to force David Davis to publish his much-trumpeted Brexit impact assessments.  That was a high. Then the analyses were released.  Oh dear, that was a low.  I read  two of the sectoral non-analyses that were most closely aligned to my profession.  They were merely a collation of public domain statistics and well-known facts about EU regulation.  I learned nothing, except that the Labour Party missed another embarrassingly large target. Why hasn't Davis been forced to resign?  Well, that's because Jeremy Corbyn doesn't want to upset the Brexit process.
The government are committed to maintaining the Common Travel Area with Ireland. This is the only good news whatsoever to come out of Brexit.  Of course, that simple high was undermined by the tabloids screaming at the Irish for daring to have their own geopolitical interests and acting as though Ireland was still part of the British Empire. The other day I watched an old episode of The Two Ronnies.  I only lasted about 10 minutes because I didn't remember there being so many jokes about the Irish being stupid.  It wouldn't have annoyed me so much if it hadn't felt so contemporary.

Can anyone remember when Nicola Sturgeon gave formal notice to the Prime Minister that there should be a Scottish independence referendum?  That was a high. It felt like something was happening at last.  Then nothing happened whatsoever so we end the year on a low.  The SNP need to regain momentum on their promise of a referendum and they need to do that quite quickly.  We all need to start the next year on a fresh high.  Independence is the only way out of this madness.

On a purely personal note, this blog is much bigger than it was 12 months ago.  That is a high. It is, of course, still a tiny niche blog but I can't believe so many people choose to read the long-winded meanderings posted here.   A huge thank you to everyone who visited or posted a comment or just stopped by for the pop video with semi appropriate song title.  The only high that remains is to achieve the final goal that will allow me to stop writing this stupid blog. On the count of 4 we all need to yell, "Oi, Sturgeon, get a move on." Yup, let's get on with it.
Over and out,


Tuesday, 19 December 2017

A Change Is Not As Good As A Rest

My Mum always says that a change is as good as a rest.  She's right on almost everything but on this one she's flat out wrong. The only thing that is as good as a rest is a rest.  I've done the experiment and I've crunched the numbers and I can hereby report with scientific clarity that the only thing that is as good as a rest is another rest.  Having said that, change is sometimes good.   As it's nearly Christmas, I wanted to write a positive post about change.  This is a politics blog so I thought I'd describe some of the things that I think are positive about daily life here in Switzerland to see if anyone would like to import them to a future iScotland.  I'm not talking about really big, top-down economic decisions like interest rates or fiscal policy but more the kind of bottom-up policy choices that have a direct effect on life quality and can actually change the mood and timbre of a society.   I'm just going to go through a few things that seemed a bit weird when I first moved to Zurich but now seem as normal as a giant bar of Toblerone.  What do you all think?  Would any of these improve life in iScotland?
A typical breakfast in Zurich.
I pay less rent today than I did eight years ago when I moved in to my flat.  There are very strict rules imposed on landlords here in Zurich that limit their power to increase the rent.  The monthly rent on all flats is tied to the interest rate set by the Swiss Central Bank.  If the interest rates remain persistent for a fixed time above the rate on the date I moved in, the landlord is allowed to increase the rent according to a formula.  Similarly, the tenant wins if the rates go down and stay that way.  Interest rates have plummeted since 2009 so at the moment I'm very much a winner.  If I moved out of the flat the landlord would be able to strike a new monthly rent (with some caveats to that) but I'm certainly not going to leave for as long as it effectively gets cheaper month by month.  My landlord might be cursing my inertia but there's not much they can do about it because renters have persistent rights of residence: they can only kick me out if I stop paying the rent or the building is demolished.   The world of renting is actually a world of strict rules.   For example, everything in the flat from windows to wall paint has a value and a lifetime, meaning that when I move out the landlord can only claim damages out of my deposit by applying a mathematical formula.  Paint has a lifetime of 8 years so the walls that were freshly painted in 2009 now have zero value and I can't be held financially responsible for fixing up the tiny scrapes and marks that built up over the years.  There are strict rules about moving out on certain days, notice periods for improvements, responsibilities for internal and external pipes and so on.  These rules strike a balance between landlord and tenant.  My view is that they generally favour the rights of the tenant by providing stability and a legal set of standards and responsibilities.  Sometimes rules turn out to be a good idea.

Pretty much everyone in Zurich rents their flat.  As I already pointed out, renting comes with all sorts of legal protections that make it a generally good experience.  It has to be pointed out, though, that ownership is beyond most people's pockets. I'm in the amazingly lucky position that I probably could go out and buy a place but I've so far opted not to do that.  Why, then, am I not a property magnate?  Well, property ownership comes with a significant tax burden.  I would have to pay tax on the theoretical income I would earn if  I rented out the property, even if I chose to live in it myself.  Also, if I chose to sell the flat within 10 years of purchasing it I would be hit with a tax bill that would wipe out any profit I might have made.  Ownership just isn't the no-brainer that it is in the UK.  I believe that changes society for the better because it means that most Swiss people are not obsessed with house prices, they're not saddled with stressful debt, they don't spent public holidays at the DIY store (more of that later), and they have more spare time and money to do other activities (more of that later, too).

The first two German words everyone masters: "Sonntag" and "Geschlossen"
In Switzerland, if your last lightbulb blows on Saturday night you'll be sitting in the dark until Monday morning.  That's right, everything is shut on Sunday.  I'll be honest, this took a bit of getting used to but now I think it is a great idea.  Scotland was actually a trailblazer on Sunday shopping but I now think it was a terrible move.  It's a really great idea to save up one day for something special, something free from commercial stress.  On Sundays what you see is Swiss people going out for leisurely strolls in the woods,  families out roller-skating on the national roller-skating paths, cyclists huffing and puffing up and down hills, people on their balconies reading a book or playing a board game, and pensioners going for a boat trip on the lake.  I quite often go for a cycle into the weird and wonderful countryside and I'll tell you now that without doing that I wouldn't have known about the strange ceremony where they dress the cows up all pretty with flowers and bring them down to the lower winter pastures.  The DIY centre is most definitely not open for business and, anyway, bathroom grouting is the landlord's responsibility.

You should see what they do to the chickens!
Those Swiss are obsessed with recycling.  As a consequence, I'm now obsessed with recycling. The binmen will only take rubbish away if it is in a special sack that costs about £1.50.  That is a lot of money for a solitary bin bag but we need to remember that it does include the price of collecting and managing the rubbish it contains.  On the other hand, recycling is free so it pays to recycle rather than chuck it straight in the bin.  There are collection points for textiles, batteries, aluminium, cardboard, paint, paper, and even water filters.  Every year the council sends everyone a little magazine with the collection calendar, a map of all the collection points and information about how to protect the environment. There's even a special cargo tram that travels around the city to collect larger items of rubbish so as long as you can get it to a tram stop, you can recycle it without needing a car (more of that later).

Mobile recycling centre.
I recently read an economic report that tried to explain Germany's unexpectedly low GDP per capita.  I wish I could find the link but a summary might be that Germany has a lot of shared wealth that doesn't show up in direct measurements.   German wealth isn't just the sum of individual wealth because huge amounts of national wealth are tied up in shared resources like trains and trams and roads and theatres and opera houses.  You can be relatively poor in Germany but lead the life of a rich person in another country because you have access to all sorts of facilities and resources that would either be expensive or just not exist elsewhere.  Personally, I don't mind paying tax if I can see the benefits all around me.  Here in Zurich, I do see the benefits on a daily basis.  The tram network didn't just magically appear, the workers painting and cleaning public spaces don't do it for free, and the opera house renovation wasn't an automatic transformation.  There is nothing sadder than a dilapidated public space or a bus timetable pinned to the bus stop that is 3 years out of date or a swirling mess of discarded crisp bags blowing around George Square. Public spaces and resources are what bind us all together.  Without them, society is just people sitting at home watching enormous TVs.

George Square will never match Odeonsplatz, Munich but does it have to look quite so unloved?
I really don't like cars.  They clog up the roads, spew out all manner of pollutants, and knock people down all the time. Why not build an ever-expanding network of trams and electric buses and trains?  Travelling on public transport around Switzerland and Germany and Austria is a pleasure rather than a chore.  I never have to wait long and it's generally punctual and clean.  Cars, on the other hand, are expensive to own due to targeted taxes. We don't need to wait for autonomous cars to solve our traffic problems because we already have the solution in the form of buses and trains and trams.  Let's have more of them.

One of the saddest sights in the developed world.
One thing I've noticed in the German-speaking world is that they take the countryside very seriously indeed.  That includes everything from litter to clean rivers to strict planning restrictions.  One of the saddest sights in Scotland is to see litter by the roadside or an ostentatious house planted where there ought to be an unspoiled view.  I have no idea how to change social attitudes but it is the case that drink driving used to be just about acceptable and now it is a massive taboo.

The equivalent of council tax here is called Community TaxThis is a progressive taxation levied on income.  Let's compare that with the weird UK system of levying a fixed charge on the inhabitants of a property rather than the owner.  Which sounds fairer? My community is Zurich City so I probably live in one of the largest communities in the country.  At the other end of the spectrum, some communities are just a hamlet and a few chickens.  All of that means that a village in the back of beyond has more autonomy than the Scottish Parliament, which has been hilariously described as "the most powerful devolved parliament in the world".  In addition to progressive taxation, I also pay wealth tax.  If I own a lot of assets or  hold a lot of cash I need to pay tax on them.  I'd hardly describe Switzerland as a hotbed of radical socialism but in many ways its tax system is far more egalitarian than in the UK.   One last thing is that the UK typically has 3 or 4 income tax bands.  That might have made sense in the days of ledgers and quills but we have computers now.  Swiss federal tax, for example, has about 12 tax bands so getting a moderate pay rise doesn't suddenly lift you from 20% to 40% tax.

Long-term unemployment is a genuine tragedy in any country.   Short-term unemployment, however, is pretty much a necessity in a dynamic economy because companies that can no longer compete should be replaced with newer ones better equipped for the changing times.  Before anyone yells at me, I've worked for enough failed companies in my time to know that it pays to keep your curriculum vitae up to date.  Given that short-term unemployment is a constant factor in a dynamic economy it ought not be something to fear.  In the UK, sadly, it is something to fear because family income levels fall off a cliff after transitioning from paid work to unemployment benefit.  That's a shame because governments ought to be encouraging workers to take risks in new fields and businesses.  The benefits system actually encourages a sclerotic economy by punishing anyone who dares to take a risk on anything that doesn't maximise income stability.  In many other countries, however, short-term unemployment is an annoyance rather than a fear because unemployment income levels are pegged to employed salary rather than to a fixed rate.  If I lose my job I will qualify for 18 months of employment insurance that will pay 70% of my current salary.  I can't remember the exact details but I think that is capped at 100,000CHF (around £70k).  For most people, life will go along as normal.  Perhaps there will be fewer holidays and meals out but the basic necessities will be covered.  After 18 months, though, the credit will run out and anyone still unemployed will be pushed on to the Social Help Programme.  That is when the social safety net of long-term unemployment kicks in.  The council will allot me a place to live and provide for me in a way that meets the constitutional requirement of being able to participate in society.   I honestly don't want to end up there because although I won't go hungry or homeless, I will lose autonomy over my own financial decisions.  I have to say that I sometimes think the long-term unemployed are a little bit neglected.  By that I mean that the state no longer really makes real demands on them to look for a job or provides much help to achieve that goal.  It feels a bit like they've given up on them and will now make sure they don't cause a nuisance (more of that later).  Despite that, it's still better than a food bank.

Drive-thru "entertainment" chalets.  Not sure if there is a Macdonalds at the end of the road.
Switzerland is a very pragmatic place.  Some might even say that it takes utilitarian decisions.  Let me explain.  Drugs policy here is really quite liberal but in some ways it mirrors the long-term  unemployment strategy.  If you're a heroin addict you can go to a treatment centre where they will give you actual heroin under the condition that you must take it there and then.  The idea here is to stop the associated criminality rather than the addiction.  There's no need for drug addicts to break into houses to fund their habit and there are no opportunities for dealers to build a business because the state has undercut them. The same sort of thinking lies behind Zurich's approach to prostitution.  They took the view that they can't stop it happening but they can limit the associated criminality by effectively acting as bordello managers.  There is even a drive-thru facility run by the council. This would never happen in the UK because dogmatism would trump pragmatism.  There's an argument that the state shouldn't act as drug dealer but the counter argument is that people who aren't addicts shouldn't have their lives blighted by it.  After all, it's not as though the dangers of drugs are a state secret. There's also an argument that it would be better if sex workers had better opportunities but then again there is also an argument that they shouldn't be beaten up at work or have their money stolen off them or trafficked.  I tend to favour the pragmatic approach.  Certainly, if you wander around Zurich city centre in the summer you'll smell the sweet and smoky aroma of, erm, pragmatism.

I unwittingly ate my sandwiches at the Zurich heroin amnesty park when inter-railing in the late 80s.  
Switzerland is a land of small, local government.  It's not just that they take pride in being organised but that they also work at scales that allow them to be organised.  Local decisions are made by local people who understand local needs. If something breaks, the chain of responsibility involved to get it fixed is mercifully short.  There is also competition between all of the communities and cantons.  They all need to organise themselves so that they maintain population and income and to do that they need to find the right balance of services and taxation.  It makes for a kind of mini market place in decision making.  Policy changes that work out for the best can be replicated by neighbouring communities and cantons, while failed experiments (like the late 80s drugs amnesty park opposite  Zurich main station) can be quietly abandoned.  It's important to note that the federal government controls the border, the army and the currency but not really much else.  Someone tell that to Gordon Brown.

Switzerland is not a paradise. It has plenty of pros but also plenty of cons.  I'm lucky to live in a community with a red-green coalition but life might be quite different in some of the more conservative rural areas where they prefer their own cows to strangers from the next village. They won't tell you to get back to your own village but once you've gone they will definitely mutter something about how the people of Unterschoeneggli are not as upstanding as the villagers of Oberschoeneggli.

Would any of these ideas make iScotland a better place?  Would they make sense in Scotland at all? What kind of bottom-up policy changes would make Scotland function better?

Yours Aye,