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.