On Friday, June 24th, the US Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion. The Court overturned Roe v Wade, a 1973 landmark decision which ruled that the constitution protects a pregnant woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. Now, the question of abortion legality will be decided by each state. It’s a decision that will have an impact on Americans from all walks of life.
More importantly, it will put the basis of American democracy under increasing strain. The consensus that guided the USA through its first two centuries to become the dominant world power first started fraying with Republican obstruction, led by Newt Gingrich, in the 1990s. This was exacerbated when campaign manager Karl Rove roped in the religious right to secure Dubya’s re-election in 2004. But things really started to come unglued in 2016 when Trump won with an unconventional campaign laced with venom and disinformation. And by appointing three politically right-wing judges to the US Supreme Court, he set up their momentous decision.
Supreme Court Justices, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, strongly rejected the legal arguments used by the majority to justify their decisions, and said they worry about what other rights are now under threat.
“In the first stages of pregnancy, the government could not make that choice for women. The government could not control a woman’s body or the course of a woman’s life: It could not determine what the woman’s future would be. Respecting a woman as an autonomous being, and granting her full equality, meant giving her substantial choice over this most personal and most consequential of all life decisions.”
While many celebrate this, the majority of American women are hopping mad, as they agree with that minority opinion. The consensus outside the “Pro-Life” campaigners, who wanted Roe v. Wade overturned, is that this is socially retrograde and puts America in the company of countries who have opposed social progress in other spheres. What follows is a grief survey of the USA’s global peers.
For more than sixty years Europe has led the continuing global trend towards the liberalization of abortion laws and the legalization of women’s access to safe and legal abortion. Today almost all European countries allow abortion on request or on broad social grounds and only a very small minority maintain highly restrictive laws prohibiting abortion in almost all circumstances.
“Abortion is a fundamental right of women.”
— Emmnual Macron, President of the French Republic
The standard practice is to legalize abortion on request or broad social grounds, at least in the first trimester of pregnancy. Almost all countries also ensure that abortion is legal throughout pregnancy when necessary to protect a pregnant woman’s health or life.
Since 2018 several European countries have enacted important progressive reforms or taken steps to remove harmful procedural and regulatory barriers that can impede access to legal abortion. An overview is shown below (source: European Abortion Laws A Comparative Overview)
Abortion in China is legal and generally accessible. Regulations vary depending on the rules of the province or city, with some provinces prohibiting non-medical abortions after fourteen weeks of pregnancy during the second trimester. The Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion is a big topic in China, a nation signalling intent to reduce high numbers of abortion as it confronts a decline in births service, displacing one related to national college-entrance exams.
Saudi Arabia has some of the most permissive (if complicated) abortion laws in the MENA region, according to the US-based Centre for Reproductive Studies. The Saudi legal code, which is regularly criticised by human rights groups for discriminating against women in family matters, allows for abortion procedures in the interests of a mother’s physical or mental health. The Hanbali school of legal thought, predominant in Saudi Arabia, does not have a unified stance on abortion, and many opinions permit the termination of a pregnancy before 120 days. However, Islamic legal doctrine is far from united on the issue. The Hanafi and Shafii codes also tolerate abortion in certain circumstances, while the Maliki school prohibits the procedure entirely, viewing the fertilized foetus as the immediate potential of life in the hands of God.
“The overturning of Roe v Wade] is essentially state-sanctioned, state-imposed, gender-based violence to women.”
—Kavita Mehra, Sakhi for South Asian Women
Abortion in Australia has been fully decriminalised in all jurisdictions, starting with Western Australia in 1998 and lastly in South Australia in 2021.
Since 1953, article 270 of the South Korean Criminal Code specifically prohibits medical practitioners, licensed doctors or other medical professionals from performing abortions, even with the pregnant woman’s request or consent. Japan’s laws on abortion are considered to be conservative.
No abortifacient has been approved in Japan. Approved doctors, however, can choose to use imported abortifacient under the same Maternal Health Protection Law. Any other person who aborts a fetus using abortifacients is considered a crime and will be punished.
Abortion in Canada is legal at all stages of pregnancy, regardless of the reason, and is publicly funded as a medical procedure under the combined effects of the federal Canada Health Act and provincial health-care systems. However, access to services and resources varies by region. Abortion is available on request to any woman up to twelve weeks into a pregnancy. Expect considerable traffic of pregnant American women crossing their 5,500-mile border.
As might be expected in a Catholic country, abortion in Brazil is a crime, with penalties of 1 to 3 years of imprisonment for the pregnant woman, and 1 to 4 years of imprisonment for the doctor or any other person who performs the abortion on someone else.
But in Mexico; abortion is available in Mexico City and the states of Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Colima, Baja California, Sinaloa, Guerrero and Baja California Sur. In border states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas, abortion is illegal. Therefore border traffic at Tijuana can be expected to grow, but other crossing points on the 2,000-mile border will be less popular
Perhaps the most damning comparison for the USA is with a country currently vilified by most of the world for its repressive, aggressive and autocratic regimes: Russia. Abortion in Russia is legal as an elective procedure up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and in special circumstances at later stages. In an effort to reduce abortion related deaths,
“The Constitution does not protect the right to abortion because it does not mention that right.”
The SNP has relaunched its case for an independence referendum; Westminster has repeated its assertion that Scotland is better off in the UK because of its size and ability to “punch above its weight in the world”. But have Brexit and Covid changed the rules and Boris Johnson’s premiership suppressed decline relative to comparator countries?
The following is a direct reproduction of Section 1 “How Well Does the UK Compare” of the Scottish Government publication “Independence in the Modern World”, published on 14th June 2022, ISBN 9781804353196.
This paper compares the UK’s performance across a range of economic and social indicators with that of Scotland’s neighbours in Europe: Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands – referred to as ‘the comparator countries’. The choice of comparator countries is explained in the Economic and Social Context section of this paper.
The evidence presented in this next section of the paper is clear-cut: these countries frequently outperform the UK, with the best performers creating virtuous cycles by which economic dynamism and social solidarity become mutually reinforcing.
Comparator countries – all independent – have generally maintained sound macroeconomic policies and credible institutions over the long-term, providing the strong foundations on which to build and sustain the economic dynamism and social solidarity described in later sections.
The comparator nations are internationalised, open economies – some on the geographical periphery of Europe – which have established macroeconomic frameworks that fit their circumstances and provide the stability required for successful long-term development. The strong macroeconomic performance of these economies is apparent across a range of indicators.
The comparator countries have:
Higher GDP per head – the comparator countries are wealthier than the UK. In 2020, GDP per capita (USD, constant prices, 2015 PPPs) was as follows: Ireland ($87,735), Switzerland ($66,674), Norway ($60,912), Denmark ($51,772), Netherlands ($51,572), Iceland ($49,416), Sweden ($49,098), Austria ($48,908), Belgium ($45,559), Finland ($44,451) and the UK ($40,607). The UK’s GDP per capita fell below the OECD average ($40,941) in 2020. (See Figure 1.)
Sustained high employment rates. Perhaps the strongest achievement of the UK economy in recent decades is achieving and maintaining a high employment rate (less positive elements of the UK labour market will be discussed in later sections). Yet Iceland and Switzerland have sustained a significantly higher employment rate than the UK, and Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden have fluctuated around the UK rate. (See Figure 3). The UK’s success in sustaining high employment (when compared to all OECD nations) is unexceptional when measured against the comparator group.
Figure 3 Employment rate over time (% of working age population), 1998-2021
Achieved lower debt and deficits as a share of GDP:
Debt: the comparator nations currently have lower debt burdens than the UK, although it is important to note that performance has fluctuated over time, with the global financial crisis having a more severe impact in some countries than others. (See Figure 4.)
As noted in the introduction, the comparator nations are open, highly internationalised economies and as such they have not been immune to global shocks – indeed, these shocks have sometimes been severe. Due to the scale of their banking sectors, Ireland and Iceland faced massive fiscal challenges – significantly greater than those faced by the other comparator nations or the UK – in the wake of the global financial crisis. However, despite the scale of the shock, both recovered more rapidly than was widely predicted at the time and their economic and social models remained intact.
In general, the comparator nations have benefitted from effective monetary and fiscal management by credible institutions which has created the stability on which these countries have built and sustained economic dynamism and social solidarity. We now consider these in turn.
B) Economic dynamism
Lack of scale has not prevented the comparator nations from successfully developing – and maintaining over the long-term – some of the world’s most dynamic, productive, innovative and internationalised economies.
Commentary on the comparator nations – especially the Nordic nations – tends to focus on equality of outcomes (especially income and gender equality) and high levels of employment. However, although often overlooked, the sustained success of these nations in developing dynamic, highly productive, innovative exporting economies is highly impressive. These countries routinely outperform the UK on measures of productivity and innovation.
The comparator nations:
Achieve higher productivity – often significantly higher – than the UK. In 2020, GDP per hour worked (USD constant prices, 2015 PPPs) was as follows: Ireland ($111.8), Norway ($83.2), Switzerland ($75.7), Denmark ($75.4), Belgium ($74.5), Sweden (470.5), Austria ($69.8), Netherlands ($67.0), Iceland ($64.9), Finland ($61.3) and the UK ($61.3). Again, the relatively better performance has been maintained over time. With the exception of Finland in 2015, productivity has been higher in all comparator countries in every year since 2000. (See Figure 7 and Figure 8.)
Invest more in research and development. All the comparator countries except Ireland spend more on research and development than the UK. The full OECD dataset over time shows that the UK has spent below the OECD average in every year since 2000 while Denmark, Finland and Sweden have spent well above. (See Figure 9.)
Figure 9 Gross expenditure on research and development as percentage of GDP, 2020
Invest more in business enterprise research and development. Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and the Netherlands all spend more on business enterprise research and development than the UK. (See Figure 10.)
Figure 10 Investment in business enterprise research and development (% of GDP), 2019
Achieve higher business investment, in all comparator countries where we have data, in most years. Indeed, the UK has the lowest rate of business investment in the OECD apart from Greece.(See Figure 11.)
Figure 11 Business investment as a share of GDP over time, 1998-2020
Register more patents per million of population. Although the UK ranked well (16th globally) in 2019, all the comparator countries except Ireland and Iceland performed better: Switzerland (3rd), Denmark (7th), Sweden (8th), Finland (9th), Netherlands (10th), Austria (11th), Norway (14th), and Belgium (15th).
The comparator nations also tend to perform strongly across the various global surveys of innovation and competitiveness:
The IMD World Competitiveness Report 2021 analyses and ranks 64 countries based on 334 competitiveness criteria and ‘according to how they manage their competencies to achieve long-term value creation’. The 2021 report ranked Switzerland 1st, Sweden 2nd, Denmark 3rd, Netherlands 4th, Norway 6th, Finland 11th, Ireland 13th, UK 18th, Austria 19th, Iceland 21st, and Belgium 24th.
The Global Innovation Index ‘aims to capture the multi-dimensional facets of innovation and provide the tools that can assist in tailoring policies to promote long-term output growth, improved productivity, and employment growth’. The 2021 index covered 132 nations and ranked Switzerland 1st, Sweden 2nd, UK 4th, Netherlands 6th, Finland 7th, Denmark 9th, Iceland 17th, Austria 18th, Ireland 19th, Norway 20th and Belgium 22nd.
The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2020 assessed 34 nations for ‘readiness for economic transformation’ (defined as a full integration of social, environmental and institutional targets into their economic systems over the next five years). The comparator countries scored well with only Ireland and Austria scoring below the UK: Finland was the highest scoring nation (69.9) followed by Sweden (68.5), Denmark (66.5), Netherlands (66.3), Switzerland (62.5), Belgium (63.6), UK (61.4), Ireland (60.9) and Austria (60.3).
The Bloomberg Innovation Index analyses 60 nations using dozens of criteria grouped into seven metrics: research and development, gross value added by manufacturing, productivity, high-tech company density, researcher concentration, tertiary efficiency, and patent activity. The 2021 index ranked Switzerland 3rd, Sweden 5th, Denmark 6th, Finland 8th, Netherlands 9th, Austria 10th, Belgium 14th, Norway 15th, Ireland 17th, UK 18th and Iceland 28th.
The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2020 ranked the top ten countries on ICT adoption, digital skills and digital legal framework. Sweden featured in the top ten on all three indicators, Finland and the Netherlands in two, and Denmark and Norway in one each. The UK did not feature in the top ten in any of these categories.
Not all the comparator countries out-perform the UK on every indicator listed in this section. But the best performing comparator countries perform better than the UK across many. And what really distinguishes these nations is their ability – sustained over the long-term – to marry economic dynamism with deep social solidarity.
C) Social solidarity and quality of life
Arguably the world’s most enduringly successful societies – as shown by a range of indicators – are independent countries of Scotland’s size which have successfully married economic dynamism with social solidarity. Relatively high social spending and relatively equal income distributions have not proved barriers to robust economic development.
The contrast with the comparator countries is stark. As set out above, these nations have managed to equal or out-perform the UK across a range of economic indicators. Despite ‘competitiveness’ often being used as a justification for UK social and labour market reforms, it is striking how these comparator nations have managed to balance – over the long-term – excellent economic outcomes with consistently strong performance across a range of social indicators.
Relative to the UK, the comparator countries have:
Lower income inequality. All the comparator countries have significantly lower income inequality than the UK, with Iceland, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Austria and Sweden among the ten most equal nations. (See Figure 12.)
Figure 12 Income inequality (Gini coefficient, 0% = complete equality; 100% = complete inequality), 2020 or latest available
Higher gross household disposable income (including social transfers in kind, $/per capita 2020) with the exception of Ireland and Sweden. Switzerland’s gross household disposable income was $43,035, followed by Norway ($40,743), Austria ($38,726), Netherlands ($38,552), Belgium ($37,926), Denmark ($35,849), Finland ($35,536), UK ($35,350), Sweden ($35,091) and Ireland ($31,553). (See Figure 13.)
Figure 13 Gross household disposable income ( US dollars per capita), 2020 or latest available
Lower poverty rates. In 2020, out of 40 countries in the OECD statistics, Iceland had the lowest rate of poverty followed by Denmark (3rd), Finland (4th), Ireland (5th), Belgium (8th), Netherlands (9th), Norway (11th), Sweden (13th), Austria (16th) and Switzerland (17th). The UK had the 23rd lowest rate of poverty in the OECD. (See Figure 14.)
There are fewer children and pensioners living in povertyin the comparator countries. In 2020, the poverty rates for children (aged 0-17 years) and pensioners (aged over 66 years) were lower in all the comparator countries than the UK – with the exception of pensioners in Switzerland. (See Figure 15.)
Figure 15 Poverty rates (total, 0-17 year-olds and people aged 66 year and older), 2020 or latest available
Fewer children living in material deprivation with the exception of Ireland. The rate in Norway was 2.8%, Finland 5.5%, Switzerland 6.8%, Sweden 7.1%, Denmark 7.1%, Iceland 9.4%, Netherlands 12.7%, Austria 13.3%, Belgium 14.9%, UK 22.2% and Ireland 26.7%. (See Figure 16.)
Figure 16 Child specific material deprivation rate by age (children aged 1 to 15), 2014
Higher social mobility. Comparator countries account for the top 9 places in the World Economic Forum’s Social Mobility Index 2020 which ranks 82 countries; Ireland is 18th and the UK 21st. (See Figure 17.) Also, comprehensive OECD analysis in 2018 concluded that it would take on average 5 generations for those born in low-income families to approach the mean income in the UK. Denmark was the only country assessed as achieving this change within 2 generations. Finland, Norway and Sweden took 3 generations and Belgium and the Netherlands 4. Austria, Ireland and Switzerland sit alongside the UK on 5 generations.
Figure 17 Global Social Mobility Index, 2020 (country rankings in brackets)
Higher life expectancy. All the comparator countries have higher life expectancy at birth than the UK’s 80.4 years – Norway (83.3 years), Iceland (83.1), Sweden (82.5), Finland (82.2), Denmark (81.6), Netherlands (81.5), Austria (81.3), Switzerland (83.2), Ireland (82.8) and Belgium (80.9).
Happiness and Wellbeing
The better social outcomes achieved in the comparator countries are reflected in the more established surveys and indices of happiness and wellbeing:
United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) 2020 rankings – the HDI is a composite indicator measuring performance across the 3 ‘dimensions’ of ‘long and healthy life’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘a decent standard of living’. Norway topped the 2020 rankings followed by Ireland and Switzerland (joint 2nd), Iceland (joint) 4th, Sweden 7th, Netherlands (joint) 8th, Denmark 10th, Finland (joint) 11th, UK 13th, Belgium (joint) 14th and Austria 18th.
OECD Better Life Index 2020 aims to “involve citizens in the debate on measuring the well‑being of societies, and to empower them to become more informed and engaged in the policy-making process that shapes all our lives”. The Life Satisfactionindicator considers people’s evaluation of their life as a whole. It is a weighted-sum of different response categories based on people’s assessment of their current life relative to the best and worst possible lives for them on a scale from 0 to 10. In 2020, Finland (7.9) scored the highest in the OECD followed by Iceland (7.6), Denmark (7.5), Switzerland (7.5), Netherlands (7.5), Norway (7.3), Sweden (7.3), Austria (7.2), Ireland (7.0), and Belgium and the UK (6.8).
World Happiness Report 2021 uses data from 350,000 interviews across 95 countries to assess subjective happiness. In 2020, Finland ranked 1st among all countries surveyed followed by Iceland (2nd), Denmark (3rd), Switzerland (4th), Netherlands (5th), Sweden (6th), Norway (8th), Austria (10th), Ireland (13th), Belgium (17th) and the UK 18th.
Our World in Data Self-reported Life Satisfaction 2020 asks respondents to “imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” Finland achieved the highest score of all nations (7.82) followed by Denmark (7.64), Iceland (7.56), Switzerland (7.51), Netherlands (7.41), Sweden (7.38), Norway (7.37), Austria (7.16), Ireland (7.04), UK (6.94) and Belgium (6.80).
The Global Wellbeing Index 2020 is based on 17 indicators including happiness, social progress and economic performance. In 2020, Denmark ranked first followed by Norway (2nd), Finland (3rd), Switzerland (4th), Sweden (5th), Iceland (7th), Austria (9th), Netherlands (11th), Ireland (12th), UK (15th) and Belgium (17th). The 2020 report found that “The Nordic nations score higher at all levels of wellbeing compared to the G20”.
Measuring regional equality is complex and different results can emerge depending on the territorial units and measures of output or income used in the analysis. It is difficult to reach concrete conclusions on the basis of a single indicator.
For example, in 2019, the Resolution Foundation concluded that “on the key productivity measure of output per worker, the UK is the most geographically unequal G7 country, with even greater inequality than the US” but conversely that “a different picture emerges when looking at typical household incomes after housing costs across the UK regions and nations. This is partly due to the state reducing gaps through redistributive policies, and because geographic income inequality has fallen over the last 30 years“.
Professor Philip McCann a leading authority on regional economics, recently examined the issue of whether the UK displays high levels of interregional inequality in the context of 28 different indicators and 30 different OECD countries, concluding that “The result is clear. The UK is one of the most interregionally unbalanced countries in the industrialised world…and almost certainly the most interregionally unequal large high-income country”. Indeed, as referenced earlier, successive UK Governments have acknowledged this persistent issue.
D) The labour market
As will be discussed later, the labour market is an area of significant policy divergence between the UK and comparator countries. The UK has deregulated its labour market and policy has deliberately sought to undermine or weaken ‘institutions’ such as trade unions and the collective bargaining of wages, terms and conditions. While the comparator nations have all deregulated to some extent (most have below OECD average levels of employment protection legislation), they have also retained relatively high levels of trade union membership and collective bargaining coverage and these counter-balancing institutions have led to different outcomes.
Relative to the UK, the comparator nations have:
Higher average wages. In 2020, average wages (US dollars) were $67,488 in Iceland followed by Switzerland ($64,824), the Netherlands ($58,828), Denmark ($58,430), Norway ($55,780), Belgium ($54,327), Austria ($53,132), Ireland ($49,474), UK ($47,147), Sweden ($47,020) and Finland ($46,230). In considering these figures, it should be borne in mind that Sweden and Finland have significantly lower income inequality than the UK.
A lower proportion of low wage earners as a proportion of all workers. The incidence of low pay in the UK is 18.1%. The comparator countries have lower rates, with some significantly lower such as the Netherlands (6.4%), Iceland (7.6%), Finland (8.6%) and Denmark (8.7%). (See Figure 18.)
Figure 18 Share of workers earning less than two-thirds of median earnings (%), 2020 or latest available
A lower proportion of income accruing to the top 1%. A higher proportion accrues to the top 1% in the UK (12.6%) than in all the comparator countries: Netherlands 6.2%, Iceland 7.6%, Belgium 7.8%, Sweden 9.0%, Austria and Norway 9.3%, Finland 10.1%, Switzerland 10.6%, Denmark 10.7% and Ireland 11.3%.
A lower gender pay gap. In 2018 – the most recent year for which Eurostat data for all countries are available – only Austria had a higher gender pay gap than the UK. Belgium had the narrowest gap, at 5.8%, followed by Ireland 11.3%, Sweden 12.1%, Norway 13.2%, Iceland 13.8%, Denmark 14.6%, Netherlands 14.7%, Finland 16.9%, Switzerland 18.6%, UK 19.8% and Austria 20.4%. (See Figure 19.)
Figure 19 Gender pay gap in unadjusted form, 2018
Source: Eurostat – Gender pay gap in unadjusted form statistics (europa.eu)
Fewer people in-work and at risk of poverty. In 2018 – the last year for which data for all countries are available – the proportion of people in work aged 18-64 years at risk of poverty was: Finland 3.1%, Ireland 4.8%, Belgium 5.1%, Denmark and Norway 6.1%, Netherlands 6.1%, Iceland (7.3%), Sweden 7.1%, Switzerland 7.4%, Austria 8.0%, and the UK 10.4%.
Fewer employees working very long hours – defined as the proportion of employees whose usual hours of work per week are 50 hours or more. In 2020, only 0.3% of workers in the Netherlands worked very long hours, followed by Switzerland 0.4%, Sweden 0.9%, Denmark 1.1%, Norway 1.4%, Finland 3.6%, Belgium 4.3%, Ireland 4.7%, Austria 5.3%, and UK 10.8%. Only Iceland (11.7%) has a higher proportion.
Significantly higher statutory sick pay. The UK has the lowest level of mandatory sick pay in the OECD. In most of the comparator countries (Ireland also has relatively low mandatory sick pay), the proportion of an individual’s wages that are covered by sickness benefits varies.
This article by Stuart Crawford, published here, does not mean endorsement of all content; it appears in the interests of widening debate on this important matter.
Another year, another promise of an independence referendum in Scotland remains unfulfilled. Despite increasingly desperate pledges to hold the next one in 2023, that forlorn hope – for independenistas at least – has melted away, to use the west of Scotland patois, “like snaw aff a dyke.”
The SNP may have returned the largest number of councillors in the May local authority elections, but this success has made not a whit of difference. Plus it has lost control of Edinburgh City Council to an unlikely alliance of Labour, Conservative, and Lib Dem councillors who now form the administration in our capital city. Who saw that one coming, eh? Certainly not tieless wunderkind Adam McVey, former leader of the Council, who has been put firmly back in his box by voters.
At Holyrood stasis reigns. The SNP has only managed, just, to hold onto power by virtue of another unholy alliance, in this case with the Greens. This latter group, a loose association of dreamers, schemers, and wired-to-the-moon beamers (who mentioned Ross Greer MSP?) now holds, unbelievably, two junior ministerial posts in the Scottish Government, in return for which they have proved all too eager to trade in any principles which they may once have held. Would Robin Harper have proved to be such a charlatan if he were still on the scene? I very much doubt it.
But, of course, the Greens are a pro-Scottish independence party, in the absence of any other credible policies of their own, and so they and the SNP are now bedfellows, albeit uncomfortable ones. Yet, despite their support, the Scottish independence movement in general and the SNP’s agenda in particular, has ground to a halt. When Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister seven years ago support for independence in the polls stood at 45%. Today it stands at … 45%.
The party’s litany of failures in government is infamously extensive; Bi-Fab, Prestwick airport, Ferguson Marine, CalMac, the NHS, drug deaths, education down the pan, and, most recently it would seem, the nationalisation of ScotRail. On the plus side? The much trumpeted Baby Box, an idea stolen from Finland and of increasingly dubious utility. It would appear that the current incumbents of St Andrew’s House are not on even a nodding acquaintance with original thought.
It would all be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. Never in the field of modern politics has so much been spent to such little avail by so few. We get the politicians we deserve, so I’m told, and all I can say is that we Scots must have done some truly awful things in a past life to end up with this lot. Their public sector, municipalist approach to governing demonstrates a paucity of intellect and savoir faire which would embarrass any local tennis club committee. And as for the idea that before distributing funds liberally to favoured causes and lobby groups it might be useful to try to create that wealth first, well, I don’t think they ever got that memo.
So, against this dismal background, what next? There are no serious intellectuals in the SNP or Greens, although there are some within the wider independence movement, Jim Sillars being one of the more obvious examples. The voters, in a classic demonstration of cognitive dissonance, will continue to vote for them but not in sufficient numbers to provide the consistent 60% majority to give them comfort that calling the next referendum will not merely be a futile gesture.
Even if that majority were to be achieved, a legally and constitutionally binding referendum requires a Section 30 Order from Westminster under the terms of the Scotland Act. Whilst the Conservative party boasts an 80 seat majority in the House of Commons any request from the Scottish government will be turned down. A “wildcat” referendum isn’t going to happen either; aside from the salutary lesson of Catalonia’s experience, with over half of Scotland’s local authorities now controlled by opposition parties or coalitions, these will likely just refuse to cooperate. So, it’s a non-starter, and the SNP and their Green partners are stuck.
The First Minister and her Cabinet colleagues are well aware of this, of course, and now appear to be looking around rather desperately to see what might break the impasse. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in a changing attitude towards NATO membership. With many gravitating historically to the SNP via the CND movement, including reportedly the First Minister herself, the party long held stance was firmly anti-NATO, on the grounds that it was “a nuclear-led alliance”.
It became increasingly obvious to the party hierarchy that this position was not electorally credible, and in a fiercely contested debate at the party conference in autumn of 2012 on the motion “an SNP Government will maintain (sic) NATO membership subject to an agreement that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons and NATO continues to respect the right of members to only take part in UN sanctioned operations”, its position was reversed.
However within the party opposition to nuclear weapons remained, which many observers saw as contradictory. How could an iScotland aspire to be a member of NATO and yet be against having nuclear weapons on its territory, presumably including weapons that might be carried on the visiting warships and aircraft of fellow members?
Here is where the language of SNP politicians has shifted markedly over the past few months and years. We have now progressed from removing the Trident-armed SSBNs from the Clyde “immediately” via removing them “as soon as it is safe and practical” to not hosting them “permanently”, as per the recent pronouncement from SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald MSP. And no clear position has been declared on visiting warships and aircraft from NATO allies. Not yet anyway.
Even the youth wing of the SNP, Young Scots for Independence (YSI), reversed its position and gave its “full support” for an independent Scotland joining NATO after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The truth is that the SNP has at long last woken up to recognise that the presence of the UK’s nuclear deterrent on the Clyde will be their biggest bargaining chip if and when it comes to post-independence negotiations. What took them so long?
Add to this the First Minister’s declaration on her recent visit to the USA that NATO membership would be “essential” for an iScotland and we can see how far the pendulum has swung. This was prompted, at least in part, by the war in Ukraine and the new desire of Finland and Sweden – both countries part of the SNP’s pathological admiration for all things Nordic/Scandinavian – to join the Alliance after decades of resistance to the idea. Needs must, I guess, when the security situation in Europe has changed so dramatically.
Finally, for our purposes here at least, we should mention in passing the SNP’s position on the monarchy. The independence movement as a whole has strong roots in republicanism, and this also permeates the SNP membership. They may have been mildly surprised by Nicola Sturgeon’s warm words about HM The Queen on the occasion of her Platinum Jubilee, or indeed her statement that the Queen would continue to be head of state in an iScotland. This is a clear attempt to appeal more to middle Scotland, the electoral demographic which the SNP has so far failed to convince and whose support it needs if the independence agenda is to be delivered.
So this is where matters lie at the moment. The SNP and the Scottish independence movement are currently stuck in No Man’s Land, not strong enough to progress further but too proud to retreat to their own lines. To break the stalemate they are now searching for a Wunderwaffe to break the deadline, hence the new appraisal of NATO membership and the monarchy amongst others. However, the future looks bleak for independenistas; there is now no time to stage an independence referendum in 2023, and with the prospect of a UK election before 2025 and the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2026, any window of opportunity to hold one is hard to see.
Meanwhile the rumbles of discontent get louder amongst the grassroots of the movement. How much longer before voters accept that the SNP is failing in government and has failed in its primary objective and move their support, and votes, elsewhere?
Stuart Crawford is a political commentator, retired Lt. Colonel and former SNP defence spokesman. He is now a member of the Liberal Democrat party and stood for East Lothian Council in the May 2022 elections.
“”Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
Boris Johnson, having won his “decisive victory” declares this has cleared the air of doubt so he can “get on with the job of delivering for the people”. Laudable stuff—but what is the job?
His acolytes claim he has delivered Brexit, led Britain through a pandemic and led support for Ukraine. But his policies for our future remain unclear. Levelling up inequalities, growing the economy through well paid, skilled jobs, sustaining the Union, forging new trade deals and making Britain “punch above its weight” have all been repeated as matra. But how will these be pursued, let alone achieved?
Boris Johnson paints himself as another Churchillian, a leader whose rhetoric will guide us back to greatness. Not to decry Churchill’s wartime achievements, but he lived in the past. His vision was imperial, rooted in the 19th century. It seems Boris inhabits the same political anachronism.
A hundred years ago, Britain ruled the world—or thought and acted as if they did. Indeed, there was much to sustain this view. She had led the Allies in defeating the Central Powers; her massive Royal Navy ruled the waves; her Empire stretched “wider still and wider” having added Tanganyika, Namibia, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq?
But those parading this global dominance showed scant awareness the world changed. Edwardian affluence had been drained into national debt. American industry already outstripped antiquated British factories and practices. Class war and the 1926 General Strike eroded the deference with which flat caps doffed to top hats. And any harmony at home was shattered by the bloody secession of the Irish Free State.
The edifice of empire continued to stand, propped up by upper-class cadre to which Churchill belonged, who saw no reason for rethinking empire. Tea planters continued to mint money in Kenya and India, rubber planters in Malaya. That global reach was underscored by a great naval base in Singapore, a heavy presence in Egypt to secure to the East via the Suez canal and exploiting Iraq to serve the growing market for oil.
Both governments and business were happy to “carry on and keep cam” when it cme to economic exploitation of the colonies. Raw materials gleaned by colonial labour were imported, processed, then exported back as finished goods at huge profits. As other countries developed and seized such opportunities, Britain became less and less a going concern, with the depression taking much of the remaining wind out of its sails.
Rearmament for WW2 revived the economy, as Hitler’s had Germany. But with few exceptions (notably aircraft and electronics), Britain became Colonel Blimp. An arrogant officer class practiced tactics derived from the playing fields of Eton leading soldiers and sailors into war with inadequate weapons and training. An air of “muddling through” permeated the country.
But shocks in Norway, Dunkirk, Greece and Libya exposed these shortcomings. When two aircraft carriers (Courageous and Glorious) were lost through flawed deployment and the “mighty” Hood was sunk by the Bismarck, even the “Senior Service” was shown wanting
These sharp lessons, all suffered in the first two years of war, did not shift the bankrupt military thinking. When the Japanese struck in December 1941, the nabobs of Empire refused to conceive of any non-white race having the audacity—let alone the competence—to take on an empire “where the sun never set”.
Losing the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, sunk in a single attack by the Japanese 22nd Air Squadron stripped the British of serious naval presence, but not their confidence in ther provision and deployment of military forces.
Then the Japanese 25th Army ran rings around Percival’s IIIrd Corps, seizing Malaya and storming Singapore from the landward—where no defences had been built. 140,000 troops went into captivity, defeated by half that number. As if that were not enough, the Japanese 15th Army infiltrated Burma, routed the 17th Indian division. Another 200,000, mostly Indian troops died, or were captured on the 750-mile retreat into India
Both disasters derived from hidebound arrogance and neglect of training and equipment for native troops. The innovative Japanese simply infiltrated through “impassable” jungle disorienting and encircling road-bound empire units.
Nonetheless, the story that the plucky Britain went on to “win the war” is the standard text still used. That America become the massive arsenal of democracy; that they overwhelmed Japan; that the Russians absorbed and defeated the worst 80% of what Germany could do; that, without them, we’d all be speaking German are stories seldon told among those of Churchillian bent. The post-war “big three” gave Britain an inflated sense of itself until the 195 humiliation of Suez shattered that iany pretence of being a global power.
The point of all this is not to denigrate those who served or died for the Empire but to ask if those establishment figures like Churchill, who ran an eroding Empire for the first half of the 20th century had their eyes on the future or just leading a nation down memory lane. Which is where many still appear to live.
Churchill and his contemporaries may all be gone, but there is a faction in the present government, led by Boris Johnson and including the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Bill Cash, Michael Gove and their brand of Brexiteers who would have us believe that past glory can be re-attained—in global economic clout, if not in pink-painted maps hanging on classroom walls.
This is dangerous delusion. Thinking that cutting ourselves off from our nearest neighbours and their single market can lead to economic glory echoes the blinkered dismissal of the opposition and blind faith in your own superiority that sent 2,000 men to their fireball deaths in a antiquated battleship or a quarter million into years of slavish captivity in sweltering Japanese P.O.W. work camps.
The answer to Britain’s future does not lie in its past—a nostrum of Dunkirk spirit, Spitfire fly-pasts and warm beer in Walmington-on-Sea. Britain does is world-class in financial services. Together with creative industries, that does power a world economy in London and the Home Counties.
Unfortunately, the country is run largely by and for that one quarter of Britain. Despite noises about “levelling-up”, that affluence has yet to penetrate where the other 48 million British live. And, with a few exceptions, like Rolls-Royce in Derby or Weir Pumps in Glasgow, the rest of Britain offers the world little by way of USP.
The Danes can survive on dairy, Lego and wind turbines; the Swiss on finance and chocolate. But neither are struggling to keep their flgging economy in global fifth place and neither has 65 million mouths to feed. In fact, both the OECD and the World Bank agree in their forecasts that, the next year, Britain will grow least among G20 countries and risks stagflation. From dominating global exportss a century ago, it has fallen to 14th place (see chart), being overtaken by former colony Singapore, an island with 9% of our population who already boast a per capita GDP ($59.7k) that is 50% above Britain’s ($40.5k).
If Britain really wants to regain some of the economic clout it once weilded, it needs more than blusier about unfettered trade; it needs unique products TO trade. America and Russia can exploit massive resources; China and India can exploit docile millions who work hard for sweeties. Trooping the Colour souvenirs will not cut it.
Two years after having “freed” itself from the EU, this Brexit-loving government has yet to demonstrate that this was more than an exercise in re-introducing imperial measures, putting the crown back on pint glasses and relishing telling Johnny Foreigner where to get off.
To all our English friends who have languished in queues and been bounced around Gatwick, East Midlands or Manchester airports by Cryin’-Air or Easy-Jilt in thwarted attempts at your first real holiday in three years, have you considered you might have been heading the wrong direction?
Despite rumblings from the independistas, neither passports not luggage checks are required to cross the border to Scotland. We speak the same language (almost), have a lot more to do and see than among the endless tower-blocks of Benidorm. Since we have only 5 million people in one third of all Britain, while you cram 56 million into the rest, we are far from full-up.
Fine though such trails are to follow, while here you are not limited to just golf, castles or whisky. As well as culture to beat the band in our cities, there are outdoor activities a-plenty, from mountain bike trails in Glen Tress, white-water rafting on the Tay, hill-walking (but not necessarily Munro-bagging), sea-kayaking the Summer Isles or hard-core surfing Atlantic rollers on Tiree.
And, while I have your attention, during your visit may I recommend investigating North Berwick, delightful seaside town just 40 miles over the Border and a half-hour from the splendours of Edinburgh? (please avoid foul calumny and scurrilous innuendo that I might be plugging this because it’s my home). The town is rare in wrapping itself along two glorious beaches, split by a rocky harbour area, with several islands to make your snaps more scenic. Only 50m from the beach, the High Street offers a half-dozen cafes and pubs, a dozen restaurants and interesting shops and galleries to nose around in between.
Speaking of seafood, we land lobsters here so the juicy one on your plate was crawling about the local seabed a day or so before making your acquaintance. Which brings us to the harbour, the heart of the town in summer.
The Scottish Seabird Centre (SSC) will introduce you to the marine wildlife that shares this part of the coast with us. From the biggest gannet colony in the world on Bass Rock, through the flocks of puffins on Craigleith, the grey seals that keep them company and the occasional visit by dolphins, you come to realise how close we live to another world. Inside the SSC, you can control remote cameras to get panoramic views of that world. For those who’d like to see it for themselves, there are boat trips out to get up close and personal.
The locals keep themselves busy in a myriad of ways. Aside from the fishermen and SSC crews, the local yacht club has more boats than the harbour can hold and organises regattas for “yachtties” from all over the country to compete on the fresh winds and open waters of the Firth of Forth.
If sailing is not your thing, there are plenty of other opportunities to get out on the water. Sea angling is good; local cod and mackerel can be caught by hiring Braveheart, which comes with rods, bait and a fisherman skipper Dougie.
Those up for some exercise can try local sea kayaking with Duneidean under George’s watchful instruction or join the crew of one of the Rowing Club’s four-oar skiffs for a social row out to see the wildlife and the town from a new angle. The really adventurous can get themselves caught up in the annual local raft race.
And, if none of this appeals to your landlubber heart, there are many other events, such as the week-long Fringe by the Sea, the North Berwick Highland Games (dozens of bands from all over the world because it is used as a warm-up venue for the Worlds in Glasgow), a Lifeboat Day, the Air Show at the Museum of Flight.
It all sounds exhausting, but it is more relaxing and much more fun than 12 hours at an airport so that you can share the beach at Alicante with umpteen thousand others.
Forget airports—go green. That’s your sun and sand by the seaside sorted!
#1024 (known to us nerds as “two-to-the-tenth”)—685 words
Gun violence in America reared its ugly head yet again in Uvalde TX. It can be scant comfort to those trying to comprehend this in Britain, where guns are uncommon and not part of the culture, to know that Americans are equally baffled and appalled.
“Ninety percent of Americans want to protect our children from gun violence, and yet those who are supposed to represent us in government are unable, or unwilling to do so.”
— Heather Cox Richardson.
During the Cold War, American leaders came to treat democracy and capitalism as if they were interchangeable. So long as the United States embraced capitalism, liberal democracy would automatically follow.
That theory seemed justified by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The crumbling of that communist system convinced democratic nations that they had “won”, that their system of government would dominate the future. In the 1990s, America’s leaders believed that the spread of capitalism would turn the world democratic, but they talked a lot less about democracy than they did about free markets.
In fact, the apparent success of capitalism actually undercut democracy in the U.S. The end of the Cold War was a gift to those determined to destroy the popular liberal state that had regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and invested in infrastructure since the New Deal. They turned animosity toward the Soviet Union toward those they claimed were bringing communism to America instead.
“Now the Soviet Union is gone and conservatives can redeploy. And this time, the other team doesn’t have nuclear weapons.”
— Grover Norquist
Republicans cracked down on Democrats trying to preserve the active government that had been in place since the 1930s, increasingly demonising political opponents. In the 1990 midterm elections, Republican whip Newt Gingrich gave candidates a document called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.”
It urged candidates to label Democrats with words like “decay,” “failure,” and “corrupt,”, while defining Republicans with words like “opportunity,” “moral,” “courage,” and “freedom.” Gingrich later told the New York Times his goal was “reshaping the entire nation through the news media.”
Their focus on capitalism undermined American democracy. They objected when the Democrats made it easier to register to vote. Losing Republican candidates argued that Democrats had won their elections with “voter fraud.” House and Senate Republicans launched investigations that turned up nothing, but sustained coverage in the media, by insinuating voter fraud was kept an issue that helped Democrats win elections. hee “Big Lie” was not a Trump invention.
In 2010, the Supreme Court green-lit a flood of corporate money into our political system with the Citizens’ United decision of 2013, which gutted provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring the Department of Justice to sign off on changes to election laws, prompting a slew of discriminatory voter ID laws. In 2010, REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project) enabled Republicans to take over state legislatures and gerrymander voting districts in their own favour.
At the same time, the rise of a market-based economy in the former Soviet republics made it clear that capitalism and democracy were not inter-changeable. An oligarchy rose from the ashes, and U.S. leaders embraced the leaders of that new system as allies. The Conservative Political Action Conference met recently in Hungary, where Viktor Orbán was a keynote speaker. At the conference, he called for the right in the U.S. to join forces with those like him.
In the US, where focus on free markets has stacked the political system in favour of Republicans, the vast majority of Americans want reproductive rights, action on climate change, equality before the law, infrastructure funding, and as well as reasonable gun laws. Sadly, their representatives seem unable to secure such things.
Capitalism, it seems, is trumping democracy (pun intended).
A key driver of Republican policy is celebrating the ideal American, patterned on the American cowboy. if only the federal government would get off their backs. Those opposed to government regulation pushed the image of running cattle on the Great Plains, a white man who worked hard, fought hard against “imjuns”, and just wanted to be left alone.
Actually, government intervention in the Great Plains was more extensive than anywhere else, with the Bureau of Land Management railroad barons and the US Cabvalry. Also, laws defending black rights in the post–Civil War South were seen as Federal overreach, leading to “socialism”, according to white racists there.
The idea of a hardworking man taking care of his family and beholden to no one became an attractive image to those who disliked government, whether protection of civil rights or business regulation. Republicans played on this John Wayne mythology. Part of that mythology, of course, was the idea that men with guns could defend their families, religion, and freedom against a government trying to crush them. By the 1980s, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was no longer just promoting gun safety, but defended “gun rights”. “Shock jock” radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh fed the media with inflammatory warnings that government was set to destroy a man’s ability to protect his family by coming for his guns.
That cowboy image has stoked an obsession with guns and war training in police departments. It feeds a conviction that true men dominate situations, both at home and abroad, with violence which, in turn, protects society’s vulnerable women and children.
In 2008, the US Supreme Court said that individuals have a right to own firearms outside of a militia or hunting clubs. Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority decision, was eager to erase decisions of post-WWII courts that had upheld business regulation and civil rights.
In 2004, a ten-year federal ban on assault weapons expired. Since then. mass shootings have tripled. The 400,000 AR-15 style assault rifles in private hands before the ban have increased fifty-fold to 20 million.
For years now, Republicans have stood firmly against any measure to restrict guns. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, Republicans in the Senate filibustered a bipartisan bill that would have expanded background checks, despite 55 votes in favour.
Since Sandy Hook, USA has suffered over 3,500 mass shootings. Republicans have excused them all by insisting on the need for MORE guns, so there will be “a good guy with a gun to take out the bad guy with a gun”., by arming teachers or having more police in schools. Fox News Channel personality Robb Elementary School had already been “hardened” with over 650,000 in security, including six armed security guards. The Uvalde (pop. 18,000) police cost 40% of the town budget even have their own SWAT team.
The story of what happened in Uvalde is undermining the Republican myth as it emerges. A fast response to Salvador Ramos firing outside the school for 12 minutes drove him inside where he barricaded himself inside two classrooms and shot his 21 victims while the 20 police outside stalled for almost an hour before Border Patrol (not local) officers unlocked the door and shot Ramoz.
Parents tried to get the police to go in found themselves accused of interfering with an investigation. US Marshals arrested Angeli Gomez, who driven 40 miles to get there. Gomez got local officers to release her, then jumped the fence, grabbed her two children and brought them to safety.
“The law enforcement officers at the school were reluctant to engage the gunman as they could’ve been shot, they could’ve been killed“.”
— Steven McCraw, Texas Director of Public Safety
The heroes protecting Uvalde’s children were not the guys with guns.
In the aftermath of last week’s mass shootings in a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, Democrats had quickly passed a domestic terrorism bill and passed it to the Senate, where Republicans blocked it.
at a press conference, Texas governor Greg Abbott, who has signed seven new laws to make it easier to obtain guns said “tougher gun laws are not a real solution.” Standing against him for the governorship in November, Beto O’Rourke said:
“You said this is not predictable…. This is totally predictable. Until you choose to do something different, this will continue to happen. Somebody needs to stand up for the children of this state or they will continue to be killed.”
The publicity over the opening of London’s £19 bn Elizabeth Line (formerly Crossrail) yesterday rather overshadowed ScotRail’s newest station opening at Reston at a millionth the cost. Largely the result of stalwart campaigning by the Rail Action Group East of Scotland (RAGES), this ends the anomaly of Berwickshire having one of the country’s premier rail lines (ECML), but no stations to access trains using it.
The intention is that it becomes a hub for the area and railhead for scattering of towns and villages that includes Eyemouth, Ayton, Coldingham, Duns and Chirnside, as well as providing parking that is in short supply in Berwick.
As a modern unmanned station, it provides lifts and bridge access from the 70-stall car park and bus stop where the single ticket machine is placed and basic waiting facilities of a couple of shelters and four-seat benches on each platform. The bridge has a nice touch of glass panels that allow views of the trains below without compromising safety.
Although the station itself shows little information and no timetables, the bus stop des show one for the Borders Bus services 34 Berwick-to-Duns (2-hourly) and 253 Berwick-to-Edinburgh (hourly). There is also a local Pingo dial-up bus. As with other unmanned stations, there are no toilet facilities, nor even waste bins. The nearest shop is 300m to the East in Reston village (pop: 450)
Reston is an un usual ScotRail station in that it has no ScotRail train service, the nearest being the five-trains-a-day service to Dunbar. Even those are currently suspended during the temporary timetable in place during the driver dispute. The reason for this is that the ECML here is almost entirely dedicated to long-distance trains between Edinburgh, Berwick and further South.
These are run by LNER (London & North-Eastern Railway), TP (Transpennine Express) and XC )Cross-country). Only TP stops at Reston, with the others providing a more frequent service to Dunbar.
On the first day of operation (May 23rd), two dozen cars in the car park and a smattering of passengers on each train shows there is already interest in the service. However, only a half-dozen trains each way at erratic times is unlikely to encourage heavy use outside of commute times. The North Berwick service used to suffer from this. But the introduction of a regular hourly electric service in 1991 grew traffic to over 5m passengers each year at North Berwick alone.
With only one stop at Dunbar, the service into Edinburgh Waverley is fast at under 40 minutes for the 45 miles. Despite being run by a famously cheese-paring First Group, TP’s 6-car 802-class trains are modern, quiet and provide a trolley catering service en route. As their Newcastle-Edinburgh route is relatively new, there are plenty of empty seats and reservations are not necessary.
Tickets cost £8 – £18 single to Edinburgh—but be careful to note and follow any restrictions; TP staff can be quite snotty if you board a train for which a ticket is not valid, starting with a £20 penalty fare, plus the cost of another ticket. However, contrary to that reported in earlier “Anorak” blogs, train companies will honour tickets issued by other companies for travel within Scotland.
Nonetheless, this attempt to have airline-style booking with differing prices on particular trains is not common elsewhere in Scotland, nor on local services in general. This problem will compound when another station opens on this “no-mans-land part of the ECML at East Linton in two years’ time. Which TOC will provide a service there is not et clear.
What IS clear is the logical way to provide service to both stations is for ScotRail to get serious about serving this part of Scotland. If it can run trains through Carlisle to Newcastle, it can run a local service to Berwick. The logical answer is to grow the Waverley-North Berwick service to a “Y-shaped” route, running half-hourly to Drem and then alternate trains between North Berwick and Berwick, with the latter calling at East Linton, Dunbar and Reston on the way. This latter need not stop at all station into Edinburgh, but should at least serve Musselburgh for access to QMU.
Few ScotRail customers notice that it changes timetables each May and December because the changes are typically minor. This May is different. The standard timetable shows losses to some services, reflecting reduction in passengers since Covid. Worse than that, an industrial dispute with train drivers about overtime that has festered since First ran the ScotRail franchise has shelved this new timetable already, and replaced it with an emergency one from Monday 23rd. It will run until the dispute ends.
The most drastic cut is in evening services, with last trains running hours earlier than usual. The last train from Glasgow to Dundee is now 19:10 and to Edinburgh 22:00. Hardly an encouragement to use public transport for an evening out in Edinburgh, instead of 23:14, the last train to North Berwick is now 19:37. ScotRail trains to Dunbar disappear altogether.
This last is not as bad as it sounds. An afterthought, seldom included in Transport Scotland or ScotRail thinking, East Lothian and the Eastern Borders are an anomaly because they run on the East Coast Main Line (ECML), the planning for which is driven by the English Ministry of Transport and English Train Operating Companies (TOCs).
The result is a guddle of competing services between Edinburgh and Berwick, at the heart of which lies Dunbar. A smattering of GNER trains stopping on their way to/from London in the 1990s meant they ran the only manned station in the area. As Dunbar grew with masses of new commuter homes, stopping services improved, largely due to persistent lobbying by the Rail Action Group East of Scotland (RAGES). Something like an hourly service to/from Edinburgh was achieved when ScotRail agreed to run trains in the existing gaps, turning them at Dunbar.
The variety of long-distance operators multiplied, with GNER eventually transforming into LNER, Cross Country (XC) expanding its services and being joined by a Transpennine service to Newcastle stopping at Dunbar. The result was a service of 20 trains each way providing access over the 28 miles to Scotland’s capital in just 20 minutes. Ridership grew, and the goal of shifting people from their cars was particularly successful.
Business was so good, it justified the first major rail investment in the area since the £57 million shifting of the ECML tracks at Prestonpans to avoid mining subsidence. Dunbar’s single platform on a loop off the southbound (Up) line was augmented by a £7 million platform on the northbound (Down) line itself, but did not provide a loop so trains could stop and still keep the line clear. This has increased ECML capacity as northbound trains stopping at Dunbar no longer need cross the Up line to reach the sole platform.
Losing its five daily ScotRail trains still leaves around 15 trains calling daily. But this is likely to result in a deterrent to rail travel discussed in Have Anorak—Will Travel: Morpeth a month ago.
Long distance train operating companies (LDTOCs) do not run their trains as ScotRail does, where tickets are generally valid on all services. Long distance operators run an airline-style system, where tickets are only valid for a certain train and not generally valid on other operators. Because they ran so few trains deeper into Scotland, LDTOCs have usually accepted ScotRail tickets between, say, Perth and Edinburgh. But this may change.
The three LDTOCs providing the 15 services stopping at Dunbar are in fierce competition further south. For the duration of the temporary timetable, they may accept ScotRail tickets from Dunbar because there are no ScotRail trains on which they could be used. But whether a TP ticket will be accepted on a XC train or vice-versa may become problematic. Ignorance of such things is unlikely to cut much ice in avoiding a £20 penalty ticket, plus full single fare, should this be enforced.
So Dunbar may soon suffer Morpeth’s problem: a plethora of trains calling but, depending on your ticket, several hours between services by the same LDTOC that on which you can use that ticket.
For Dunbar locals reading this. Consult with the ticket counter at Dunbar. Not only is Dunbar that increasingly rare creature—a manned station—but, since being run by ScotRail, they are helpful, informative and an encouragement to keep using public transport, despite present travails.
“The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened”
—Winnie Ewing MSP, 12th May 1999
Whether you’re a unionist or a nationalist, those words from 23 years ago started Scotland down a road that refreshed its sense of itself. By allowing it to exercise discretion beyond the kirk, law and education to which its civic efforts had been restricted for 292 years, new voices and new thinking emerged. Since then, despite major improvements to representation across the UK, no revision to how Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) are elected has been considered.
Closely following the pattern used in Ireland, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, since 1999, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been elected by a proportional system, known as Single Transferrable Vote (STV). The 18 Westminster constituencies also each elect five MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly), for a total of 90. Each MLA therefore represents 21,000 people with broad representation of their political orientation.
The Welsh Senedd (formerly Assembly) was set up at the same time as the Scottish Parliament, using the same Additional Member System (AMS) as Scotland; 40 members are elected by the First Past The Post (FPTP) system, while 20 more by AMS, using lists of candidates, ordered by the parties themselves. The five regions each elect four members for a total of 60 in the Senedd. In Scotland, 72 are elected by FPTP from constituencies that now differ considerably from Westminster constituencies, which have been reduced to 59. The eight regions used for AMS were originally European constituencies, which makes them an anachronism. Each elect seven MSPs, for a total of 128 MSPs.
Even without the confusion among MSP and MP constituency responsibilities, the Welsh have found problems of representation overlap between region and constituency. This “two-tier” system of MSPs plagues the Scots too.
To address this, the Welsh are proposing to shift to STV to elect the Senedd. The Welsh Boundary Commission plans to reduce the number of Westminster constituencies in Wales from 40 to 32. The STV plan would be based on these, pairing these into 16, each of which would elect six members by STV, for a total of 96 Senedd, all elected the same way and each representing 32,900 people, rather than the present 52,600. This plan will require 2/3rds of the Senedd to approve. As it comes jointly from Labour and Plaid, it is likely to pass, despite Tory opposition.
Is this not a chance for the Scottish Parliament to improve its confusing democracy?
In Scotland, each MSP currently represents 42,600 people—considerably more than the present NI Assembly or what is proposed for the Welsh Senedd. Given this level of dissatisfaction and confusion with AMS should Scotland follow the lead elsewhere and improve democracy by clarifying representation by adopting uniform STV?
Scottish voters are already familiar with STV though its use to elect councillors—the last being earlier this month. This would not be a new system to learn, but actually one fewer to handle. That said, restriction of council wards to 3 or 4 being elected mitigates against STV’s ability to allow smaller parties fair representation. Both the Irish Dail and the NI Assembly elect five per constituency.
Scotland has 59 Westminster constituencies. There is an argument that, because of their special cases, the Northern and Western Isles, might be better represented by FPTP. Pairing the remaining 56 give 28 mainland STV constituencies sharing boundaries with Westminster. Having each elect five MSPs by STV would give a total of 143 MSPs. These would all be elected on an equal basis, with each MSP representing 38,200 people—closer to other nations.
These paired constituencies would eliminate the present confusion of boundary overlap and obsolete regions. They also simplify community representation. A cross-party group of five MSPs would represent cities like Dundee (East paired with West), Aberdeen (North paired with South), or Perth (Perth & North Perthshire paired with South Perthshire & Ochil).
Election of five MSPs ranked by the voters increases the likelihood of more diverse representation—which eliminates party ranking AMS lists and encourages candidates to become polular with voters, rather than party failthful. The cities exampled above would most likely elect an MSP from all five main parties. This increases local bonds and common interests could reduce the present adversarial nature of Holyrood by compelling the group of five to identify more with those they represent. A more collegiate approach would benefit all.
And we would no longer have 56 regional MSPs “interfering” in constituencies and trying to stretch from Stranraer to Dunbar or Campbeltown to Lerwick.
With the ritual pomp and circumstance of Life Guards, Beefeaters, Rolls Royces, Black Rod and everyone who’s anyone among Westminster politicos, a new session of parliament was opened on May 10th. For the first time, Prince Charles did the honours and more media attention fussed over the Queen’s absence than the substance of the 38 bills to be shepherded through in this session.
The following debate on the matter centred on there being “little to address the current cost of living crisis” (Keir Starmer), but this seems unfair. This was always a programme of government which would have little effect before the bills were drafted, discussed, agreed and promulgated, a process that typically takes two years.
The stated aim of these bills was “to turbocharge the economy”, with the subtext that Britain would have to grow its way out of its present fiscal problems of soaring energy costs, looming double-digit inflation, rising interest rates and a national debt creeping toward £3 trillion (£46,150 per head of population). Some bills may contribute to growth, including HS2 Crewe-Manchester and a House Building Programme for England. One to “make a bonfire of EU red tape” is to realise £1 billion in savings. But many others, such as those to curb illegal immigration and increase police powers to control demonstrations, show costs, rather than economic boosts. Only a vague reference to rectifying flaws in the Northern Ireland Protocol that have derailed the Northern Ireland Assembly offers a hint that it will be simply scrapped, in defiance of the EU. Liz Truss is clearing the political ground by finally rejecting EU proposals she has been sitting on since October.
Yet, there is no clear strategy to disentangle customs hold-ups that exacerbate a 15% drop in exports—serious enough to soak up any economic growth to the point of threatening recession and stagflation.
In short, there were few clear signs how the much-touted “Brexit Bonus” “Levelling-Up” and “high-paying, high-skilled jobs” all touted as delivering the desired growth remain vague and unspecified. This all smacks of few ideas among growing desperation.
No-one disputes the ability of high-value jobs in turbocharging the economy. But there are few examples of governments being the main driver. Conservatives tour privatisation as the magic wand. But they sold off UK control of North Sea oil and publicly owned power companies. This resulted in the our present impotence to control this energy price shock. In contrast, the French did not—in fact state-owned EDF is one of Britain’s |big six” energy companies that is using UK profits to keep French prices down. They sold off BA and UK airports, which are now the most Heath-Robinson and most underdeveloped in Europe. Rail privatisation has given us the most fragmented and most expensive rail system too.
What Conservatives seem to have forgotten was that, once the brutality and slavery that characterised the early British Empire had bootstrapped its riches, the Victorians developed more humanitarian principles while leading the world in technologies developed and exploited by entrepreneurs. Government had very little to do with it, beyond providing civic stability (through democracy) and protected trade (through the Royal Navy).
Hankering wistfully after that heyday, which the UK government and especially the Little Englander backwoodsmen from the shires is unlikely to recreate that in a world of economic giants like China and the USA. What they fail to recognise is Britain needs a USP or two, which will not be established by random scattering of money.
Such an example is the £2.6 billion Regional Growth Fund (RGF) for England supports eligible projects and raising private sector investment to create economic growth and lasting employment. When the BBC put FOI requests to 100 eligible local authorities, they found that 35 had not applied and a further 28 had their proposals rejected. In each case, an expensive and time-consuming proposal had to be submitted and there is no sense that the 37 in process offer any coherence likely to develop USPs.
Looking at other economies, Germany specialises in the high-precision engineering required for quality cars, white goods, machine tools, etc. Denmark has the lion’s share of wind turbine production. The Dutch have cornered the market in global marine towing. What Britain needs is to expand existing advantages, such as in jet engines, offshore engineering, aerospace and biotechnology. To this, it must add new fields, like tidal energy, artificial intelligence (AI) or fintech.
But only when Hartlepool has become the global hub of tidal energy, Manchester of AI and Edinburgh of fintech will any “levelling up” become reality, rather than the bureaucratic squandering of billions, such as the 1960’s ill-fated Linwood car plant and Ravenswood steel mill to counter Glasgow’s industrial decline.
And Scotland shows that it is not just Westminster that can displays scant understanding of the problem, let alone how a self-sustaining dynamic breakthrough could be achieved. At the same time as the Queen’s Speech, Scottish Enterprise was welcoming business attendees to the 2022 World Forum for FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) at Edinburgh’s ECC. This international event highlighting Scotland as a world-leading destination for investment and business location. Its purpose is given as:
“...to showcase Scotland’s on-going ability to attract cutting edge/innovative/world leading international projects, with the country continuing to be the most attractive location in the UK outside of London for Foreign Direct Investment.”
This is positive-sounding, but just as fuzzy as that embodied in the Queen’s Speech. SDI is unveiling a series of new ‘extended reality’ investment propositions to promote strategic investment sites in Scotland. The Forum features panel discussions on “sectors critical to Scotland’s economy, such as a Just Transition, Health Tech and Software/Digital Industries”.
All of which also sounds good, but is in danger of falling between two stools. The boom of FDI in the 1980s that produced “Silicon Glen” was soon recognised as largely a third-world operation—an opportunity to produce goods cheaply within the EU, but bringing few of the “high-paid, high-value” jobs discussed above. Despite Scotland’s claim to have a well educated work force and quality universities, the chances of FDI bringing in the R&D labs, the skunk works, the engineering infrastructure like wind tunnels or cutting-edge fab lines that are the seeds from which USP businesses grow are actually small. Certainly, Scottish Enterprise’s £600 million budget has failed to secure any to date. White elephants like the Chunghua Picture Tube (remember them) on the M8, or Hyundai plant in Dunfermline East sully their reputation for anticipating technical opportunity is heading.
North or South of the border, those charged with securing our future prosperity are not demonstrating they are worthy heirs to Brunel, Telford, Baird or Gresley. Because that’s what we need to survive, le alone prosper, in the 21st century.