Thoughts on the EU Referendum

We’re days away from the UK’s third referendum in just over five years. The first referendum, on our voting system, was barely met with disdain, let alone any real views or debate. The second, on Scottish independence, consumed political debate for two years in the lead-up to it, and still looms in some corners.

This one, on whether the UK should remain a part of the European Union, or leave, sits somewhere between the two. For people who believe in the European project, it’s met with disdain, but for those who want to leave the EU, it’s a fiery subject.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this referendum is that, like in 2011’s AV referendum, very few people are enthusiastic about their chosen option. Just like most people who wanted change in our electoral system didn’t really want AV (they wanted STV, for the mostpart), a large number of people supporting Remain in this campaign struggle to be enthusiastic because Europe isn’t really what they want it to be either. In some regards, it’s a bit of a poisoned chalice.

People regularly ask my opinion on the matter (more fool them!) so here are some of my thoughts.

It’s not about the Tories

First and foremost, this is not a referendum on the Conservative Party. It’s not about whether you prefer David Cameron and George Osborne or Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (which is good news for everyone, I think). We need to look past the media headlines, because this is a decision that will affect not just the next five years, but possibly the next twenty-five. This is about how we, the British people, view our country, our standing in the world, and our approach to the future.

Making a statement

The decision we make on Thursday will inevitably have consequences in the way our country is seen by people outside the UK, and their governments. If we vote to Remain, the other member states of the EU will read that as acceptance of the general direction of the EU. If we vote to Leave, we will likely be seen as isolationist. Whether either of those scenarios appeals to you is a moot point – that’s the position we’re in by holding a referendum, and that’s how people outside the UK will see it.

The bigger picture

If we do choose to Leave, eurosceptic movements in other countries may be emboldened. The obvious candidates are Sweden and Denmark. In some ways, we could have an opportunity to form a northern European bloc of some kind, which would be an interesting prospect!

I think it unlikely the UK wouldn’t be followed by other countries. This could result in some very big changes to the EU, but may also result in a long period of instability. This could be, in the short- to medium-term, bad economically for Europe, albeit beneficial in the longer-term. Politically, NATO is a far more important institution for Europe’s stability, especially when looking further east.

The economic argument

The economic argument is more complex than any politician will openly say. The shock! But to me, it’s a trade-off. In my mind, staying in the EU is definitely beneficial in the short-term. If we vote to Remain, the Pound and stock markets will surely rally, as things will basically return to normal. The future will be as predictable as it was six months ago. Businesses won’t leave the UK unless they had plans to do so already. Investment will be made in the knowledge of existing rules.

Were we to leave, uncertainty could lead to all sorts of effects. If investment goes down, taxes receipts might go down. Tax rises might follow. The government might come under serious pressure. Inflation could be quite unpredictable. Of course, it’s hard to know which of these would happen and to what extent, and who would win or lose, but one thing it would surely have an immediate effect on is pensions invested in shares.

But should that really affect how we vote this week?

If this referendum will affect the UK for a generation, we really should be basing our view of economics on the whole of that period. Would a potential recession last for twenty-five years? No. Would any short-term loss of GDP be recoverable in the longer-term? Yes. Do you trust the people on either side have a sound economic plan? Not so easy to answer that one, is it?!

It’s not racist to talk about immigration

People who support Leave seem to think people on the Remain side want open borders. People on the Remain side seem to think that controlling immigration is racist. Neither is an accurate picture.

There is, of course, freedom of movement across the EU, plus a few other non-EU countries.By pulling out of the EU, we can pull out of existing arrangements over freedom of movement. This would mean we could place a limit on people from the EU coming to live in the UK. EU countries might then place similar restrictions on British citizens. Is this something we would be willing to accept?

Furthermore, freedom of movement would likely be a precondition of any deals we make with the EU. It’s kind of the Leave campaign to point out Canada don’t have to sign up to freedom of movement, but Canada is not on Europe’s doorstep either!

It’s also worth pointing out that refugees from non-EU countries do not have the right to come to the UK just because they claim asylum in an EU country. There may be moral arguments for the UK to take more refugees, but that’s another argument.

On the other side, it is not racist to want to place limits on immigration. Immigration undoubtedly has an impact on the UK. Some of it is positive – workers for the NHS, for instance (and savings on training them). However, there are other consequences, such as pressure on house prices. Could everyone in the world come to live in the UK? No. No-one would disagree on that, surely? So the question to ask is, how many people would be too many? And what controls should be in place to control who makes up the numbers that are then deemed to be sustainable?

A points system for immigration does two things. First, it sets a limit on the numbers of people who can enter a country. Secondly, it provides a (hopefully) objective system by which people can be assessed on merit. The alternative is a first-come, first-served system. If that’s what you support, that’s fair enough, but short of accepting uncontrolled immigration, you need a system in place to control immigration in some way.

(Some of) the EU debate is a mirage

The EU debate is often an easy way to avoid taking responsibility for the failures of our own governments. For instance, immigration is often blamed for stealing people’s jobs. But there are two problems with this. First, sometimes British people don’t take those jobs. Job centres do not appear to be set up to effectively channel people into work. Perhaps that’s as much an issue as immigration? Second, in some cases it’s because jobs require expertise which is not available in sufficient quantities in the UK. This is an issue with education and training, rather than immigration per se. Why are so many of the healthcare workers from outside the UK? Perhaps we don’t have enough training places available…

Sometimes arguments just cover up other issues, and you can’t always rely on the other side to flag it.

Whatever you do, vote

Especially if you’re a young person. The odds are the result will affect you for longer!

Thoughts on the Scottish Election

With the Scottish elections imminent, there are a few things I’ve been asked about that I may as well get off my chest.

I’ve been asked my thoughts on the Scottish election a few times this week, so I’ve decided to pen a few of them. It may make your blood boil. Some of it is a little tongue in cheek, but there’s some hard truth in it too.

Taxation

The SNP tell us putting a penny on income tax will hurt the poorest in society more than anyone. This is a lie.

The poorest in Scotland don’t pay income tax. If you earn less than £11,000 this tax year, you’ll pay no income tax, whatever the rate. For those who do pay, income tax is progressive. It’s 1% of everything above the £11,000 figure. If you earn £12,000, you’ll pay an extra £10 in tax. If you earn £22,000, you’ll pay an extra £110 in tax. The poorest don’t pay more, than those who earn more will pay more than those who earn less.

The real reason the SNP are against raising tax is because people don’t like it. The Scottish Conservatives are honest about that, but the SNP aren’t. That’s the real reason they oppose a raise.

By all means, oppose a raise in income tax because you believe in low taxation, but don’t dress it up as a way of protecting the poorest.

Oh, and a quick note on the 50p tax rate. On page eight of the SNP’s 2015 manifesto, they support a 50p tax rate. This year, given the opportunity to implement it, they chose not to promise it, and attacked Labour for supporting it. Again, by all means oppose it for other reasons, but they’ve changed their tune for sheer political expedience and covered it up in hogwash.

Independence

One of the problems with the last session was that half of it was taken up by the independence referendum. This meant issues like missed A&E targets, falling literacy and numeracy rates, and chaos at the heart of the new, centralised Police Scotland got very little legislative attention.

Repeating that referendum will exacerbate the situation. We need to focus on legislating if we want to find a solution to those problems. You can’t just blame everything on “Wastemonster”.

I made my views on independence clear at the time. The referendum was run on a one-vote, matter-settled basis. The “Yes” side had two and a half years to convince people of their case. They didn’t. Time to move on.

Aha! But what if “the people”, or “public opinion”, suggest we want independence after all? Well, I have four points to make:

  1. They might change their mind again! Imagine that!
  2. Referendums are not like elections. They are designed to settle matters not forever, but for a generation. Check out the 1975 referendum on membership of the EEC. Did it mean everyone embraced Europe? Far from it. But the UK waited 41 years for another referendum nevertheless.
  3. You don’t run a referendum over and over again until you get the “right” answer. Remember Ireland and the Lisbon Treaty? That’s not the way to do it.
  4. It’s not just about Scotland. Independence would affect the rest of the UK and Europe too. It creates uncertainty. Uncertainty affects investment, and that affects growth. You have to draw a line. The line was drawn before the referendum. You can’t redraw it now.

So, despite my support for independence in 2014, I completely agree with Ruth Davidson. If the Prime Minister is asked to sanction another referendum, he should invite the proposer to take a hike and use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to make a real difference to Scotland.

Trident

Trident shouldn’t really be an issue in the Scottish election, as it’s a reserved issue. However, it doesn’t stop people making it an issue.

The usual argument is that replacing Trident would stop us investing in public services, and we’d all be jolly well better off (financially) without it. Let’s look at the maths, shall we?

Replacing Trident would, over 30 years, cost £167 billion under current estimates. Scotland’s share of that would be about 8%. Spread over 30 years, that’s just under £450 million a year.

Scotland’s current budget deficit is £15 billion per year, so it would account for, at current rates, about 4% of the current budget deficit.

Scrapping Trident wouldn’t make Scotland substantially richer. By all means, scrap Trident because you think it’s repugnant, but don’t do it because it will turn Scotland into a rich paradise. It won’t.

“Free” education

Education is not free. Someone has to pay for it. There are three ways of doing it:

  1. General taxation – everyone pays.
  2. Student fees – the student pays everything.
  3. Hybrid approach – university is funded partially through general taxation and partially through fees paid by the student (either upfront or after graduation).

In reality, the second approach is too expensive to be an option. So, it’s either general taxation or a hybrid approach. The SNP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats support funding higher education purely through general taxation. The Scottish Conservatives, meanwhile, support the hybrid option.

So, why do the other parties not support that option? That’s because they support “free” education.

Newsflash! It’s not free. You’re just asking all taxpayers to pay for it. Even if they didn’t go to university.

There is another objection. It’s the poor card again. Fees will put off poor students from going to university. Don’t believe it.

Upfront fees (where you need to pay before you go) will put off poor students from going to university, because they will struggle to find the money. However, that’s not what’s proposed, and that’s not how the system works in England either. Instead, the proposal (and the English system too) works by asking graduates to pay back their fees once they have their degree and are earning over a certain threshold.

If you get a degree and can’t get a job, or don’t earn much, you don’t pay anything back until you do. Once you do, you pay back a certain percentage above the threshold. It’s progressive. (Have you noticed how the SNP don’t like progressive taxation yet? Don’t worry, there’s one more coming.)

There is one area of concern, however, and that’s the cost of the loan to the student. I was fortunate to study between 2005-2008, and the interest rate on my loan is very fair – it’s broadly in line with inflation. Under current English student terms, the interest rate is RPI + 3%. That’s a raw deal for students (but loans are cancelled after 30 years). So, the terms are important, but the principal is not a bad one. And free education is a myth from that far away oil-rich egalitarian independent utopia (often called “Norway”).

Council Tax

OK, one final subject: council tax. This is a putrid tax – everyone is agreed on that. The SNP promised to abolish it in 2007. A committee has spent years reviewing it, with a view to abolishing or reforming it. And, come the end of it, what have the SNP promised to do with the putrid, hated tax they promised to abolish?

They’ll ask people in high-band houses to pay a bit more. Great, thanks for wasting our time. They won’t even conduct a revaluation of house prices and bands – data that’s 25 years old.

But living in a high-band house doesn’t mean you earn more. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hated. If you live in a small flat in a nice area, you might be in Band E, whereas in a house more than twice the size in a struggling area, you’ll be in Band B. Regardless of ability to pay. That’s regressive, not progressive. Shambolic. They had the opportunity to reform Council Tax, but haven’t got the political will to do it. Sad.

SNP Conservatism

The SNP are being very conservative in this election, aren’t they? None more so than in their election billboards:

Don’t just hope for a better Scotland, vote for one.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Trouble is, it sounds very similar to Margaret Thatcher in 1979:

Don’t just hope for a better life. Vote for one.

Ah, Maggie. Still inspiring the SNP, 37 years on. OK, I know. Maggie doesn’t have a monopoly on inspiring (and hollow) slogans. But there is one important difference.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was the challenger. She was the Leader of the Opposition (an actual position, unlike the fake one Ruth Davidson is trying to “win”) at a time when the Labour Government was on its knees after the Winter of Discontent. The Conservative Party ran arguably the most famous election slogan of all time in that election: “Labour isn’t working”. And it wasn’t – for anyone.

Contrast that to now, Nicola Sturgeon is already the First Minister. She has been for about eighteen months. She has served as Deputy First Minister from 2007 to 2014. She is the incumbent.

It’s great to tell people they can vote for a better future, but when you’ve been in power so long, they shouldn’t have to. They should see you’re already doing it.

Handbags

It’s amazing how parties can feign disagreement when their policies are near identical. Take healthcare, for example. The SNP have taken Labour to take because Labour will only increase health spending “in real terms” (i.e. above inflation – a good thing for the NHS budget, as it will increase).

When you look at the SNP manifesto, they promise to increase the NHS budget by £500 million. That’s a real terms increase, by another name. Labour don’t put a figure on their budget increase for health, but the policies are basically the same.

In the first STV debate, Willie Rennie had the opportunity to ask Kezia Dugdale anything he wanted. So, what did he decide to attack her on? Putting a penny on income tax to fund education. Fair game, right?

Well it would be, except that’s the Lib Dems’ policy too. And that, for me, sums up the Lib Dem campaign. Generally anonymous, and when given a chance, utterly hopeless.

Conclusion

So, there are my thoughts. The SNP will win a comfortable majority on Thursday. I’m not sure who will finish second, but it’s looking more like the Conservatives than Labour right now. The Greens will easily beat the Lib Dems to fourth.

And if you want to know which Regional list I’m watching out for… Highlands and Islands. Plenty of decent things to watch out for there. How strong are the SNP in Orkney and Shetland? How strong are the Lib Dems? What about UKIP? Will Jean Urquhart help RISE’s fortunes, and what about UKIP? A juicy region indeed.

Thinking about the Scottish elections?

How should you approach the Scottish elections? How do you find out what each party stands for? And how do Christians engage with the Scottish Parliament, politicians, and politics in general?

In case you’ve missed it, the next elections for the Scottish Parliament are on Thursday 5 May – less than a week away.

Whilst enthusiasm for these elections is noticeably less than it was for the independence referendum 18 months ago, they are important elections, and with the new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament in the next session, the next Scottish Government will have the power and responsibility to make real choices about spending priorities and raising taxes.

So, even if it seems like the result of the election is already settled, it’s still important to engage. The voting system used in Holyrood means there are lots of seats on the regional lists which are most definitely up for grabs, even if many of the constituencies won’t end up being very close.

The make-up of the opposition will also be important in determining how well the government are held to account – not just whether Labour or the Conservatives finish second and lead the opposition, but the number of seats each party has. So, there are two things to help you as you think towards the election.

First, I have collected as many election manifestos as possible, which are available for you to read and download. They’re often not very easy to find, which is why I’ve collated them together. Some may be missing, but it’s not a conspiracy – if any aren’t there, it’s because I couldn’t find them!

Second, I have been working to produce a booklet for the Evangelical Alliance in Scotland to help Christians engage with the new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament, exploring the opportunities and challenges they bring. It won’t tell you which party to vote for, but hopefully helps to think about more than just the standard issues which are discussed in election campaigns, as well as exploring how Christians can engage with politicians and politics in general. That booklet is available on the EA Scotland website. Unfortunately it’s not available as a PDF download, but if you would like a copy, let me know and I can pass a copy on to you.

Hopefully both these things are helpful. I may have some other thoughts about the election, but I’ll save them for another time.

2016 Political Predictions

Want to know everything about politics in 2016? Well, you won’t get that here. But I can tell you what I think will happen, and we can all laugh at how bad those predictions were come the end of the year. Or probably in March, to be honest.

The start of a new year is always a great time to make predictions which will ultimately be shown at the end of the year to be entirely misplaced.

That’s certainly true in politics. Who would have predicted a Conservative majority government at the start of last year. Well, me, actually… But I wouldn’t have predicted Jeremy Corbyn would be Labour leader… Or that Jim Murphy would be such a disaster as leader of Scottish Labour.

So,here are some predictions for 2016. Most revolve around the Scottish elections, since that’s what’s mostly on my radar right now.

The SNP will win a majority in the Holyrood elections
There’s nothing I can think of that can stop this. The question is, can they win a majority on constituency MSPs alone? They would need to pick up twelve of the twenty constituency seats they don’t currently hold in order to do this. I think it’ll be very close.

The Conservatives make gains on Labour
I don’t see Labour holding all thirty-seven seats they currently have. They currently hold fifteen constituency seats. Good luck.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, will, I think, gain a small handful of seats, mainly on the list. They’ll gain on Labour more because Labour lose seats rather than by gaining their own, but I think it will be a bit of both.

The Greens will finish with more seats than the Liberal Democrats
The Lib Dems will struggle. I think they’ll pick up a single constituency seat and a few on the list. The Greens won’t win any constituency MSPs, but they’ll win more on the list, because they’ll pick up pro-indy, anti-SNP votes. I’d be surprised if the Liberal Democrats get 5% of the vote.

I would say Willie Rennie will no longer be their Scottish leader, but will there really be anyone there to replace him? I think it’ll be grim for the Liberal Democrats, despite the outward optimism they seem to have now.

Britain will vote to remain in the EU
I know Brits are hardly fond of the European Union, but I don’t think people will be prepared to take the risk of leaving when faced with the choice in a referendum. When making a choice, thinking about factors like jobs and money in their pockets, people will stick to what they know. They won’t want to take the risk.

Don’t believe me? Well, it was the same with Ed Miliband.

Jeremy Corbyn will survive as Labour leader
Getting rid of Corbyn would result in full-scale civil war. Labour MPs will decide to let him continue to poll badly, rather than stick the knife in quickly. It’s probably safer.

Hillary Clinton will win the US Presidential race
This will happen for the simple reason that no-one can beat her to the Democratic Party nomination, and all the Republican Party candidates that might do well are crackpots can’t reach out to enough voters. That, in essence, is the problem the Republican Party has at every election at the moment.

London will get a new mayor
But I’ve no idea who. London mayoral election’s are a mug’s game. I think it’ll be the tightest mayoral election yet, though. If forced to make a prediction, I’d probably pick Sadiq Khan, based on gut instinct and nothing else.