Democracy for Sale

This blogger subscribes to a number of sources regarded as reliable with the intention of presenting information and opinions here based on factual evidence. Occasionally, those sources present what Americans might call a “humdinger” of a scoop that demands wider distribution. One such is today’s blog from Heather Cox Richardson, containing the following verbatim quote.

Heather Cox Richardson, Aug 23

Today’s big news is an eye-popping $1.6 billion donation to a right-wing nonprofit organized in May 2020. This is the largest known single donation made to a political influence organization.

The money came from Barre Seid, a 90-year-old electronics company executive, and the new organization, Marble Freedom Trust, is controlled by Leonard A. Leo, the co-chair of the Federalist Society, who has been behind the right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court. Leo has also been prominent in challenges to abortion rights, voting rights, climate change action, and so on. He announced in early 2020 that he was stepping back from the Federalist Society to remake politics at every level, but information about the massive grant and the new organization was broken today by Kenneth P. Vogel and Shane Goldmacher of the New York Times.

Marble is organized as a nonprofit, so when Seid gave it 100% of the stock in Tripp Lite, a privately held company that makes surge protectors and other electronic equipment, it could sell the stock without paying taxes. The arrangement also likely enabled Seid to avoid paying as much as $400 million in capital gains taxes on the stock. Law professor Ray Madoff of Boston College Law School, who specializes in philanthropic policy, told the New York Times: “These actions by the super wealthy are actually costing the American taxpayers to support the political spending of the wealthiest Americans.”

This massive donation is an example of so-called “dark money”: funds donated for political advocacy to nonprofits that do not have to disclose their donors. In the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) decision, the Supreme Court said that limiting the ability of corporations and other entities to advertise their political preferences violates their First Amendment right to free speech. This was a new interpretation: until the 1970s, the Supreme Court did not agree that companies had free speech protections.

Now, nonprofit organizations can receive unlimited donations from people, corporations, or other entities for political speech. They cannot collaborate directly with candidates or campaigns, but they can promote a candidate’s policies and attack opponents, all without identifying their donors.

“I’ve never seen a group of this magnitude before,” Robert Maguire of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) told Casey Tolan, Curt Devine, and Drew Griffin of CNN. “This is the kind of money that can help these political operatives and their allies start to move the needle on issues like reshaping the federal judiciary, making it more difficult to vote, a state-by-state campaign to remake election laws and lay the groundwork for undermining future elections.” Our campaign finance system, he said, gives “wealthy donors, whether they be corporations or individuals, access and influence over the system far greater than any regular American can ever imagine.

Heather Cox Richardson, Aug 23

#1036—519 words

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Union Myth-Take 5

“The case for independence has been swallowed up by a £14bn North Sea black hole.”

This quote from unionists in 2016 was based on a fall of 97% in tax revenues from North Sea Oil from £1.8bn in 2015 to £60m in 201. This dismissive attitude toward what contribution the North Sea could ever make to the finances of an independent Scotland has been repeated and compounded by increased deficits due to measures to cope with Covid. Budget balances over the last five years is shown in the table.

Comparison of Historic Budget Deficits  (Source: GERS[1])


[1] https://www.gov.scot/publications/government-expenditure-revenue-scotland-2020-21/

Clearly, Scotland runs a larger budget deficit proportionally than does the the UK. The is unionist case that oil makes little difference to this holds true for the years up to 2019-20. And GERS figures for 2021-22, to be released in August will be similar.

Companies operating in the North Sea pay three profit-related taxes on oil and gas: ring fence corporation tax, supplementary charge, and petroleum revenue tax (PRT).

Russia’s war on Ukraine has hit Western economies in unanticipated ways. From a level around $40 a barrel in 2016, Brent crude has ben selling around $100 a barrel since April and boosting BP profits to $8bn for the quarter. Other than slapping a windfall tax on this in July, Westminster has been coy about its own windfall, not least because it would transform Scotland’s balance into healthy positive territory. This transformation is shown on the chart:

Company Profits and Treasury Take from North Sea Oil & Gas (Source: Bloomberg[1])


[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-27/uk-set-for-record-tax-revenue-from-north-sea-oil-and-gas – xj4y7vzkg

UK Treasury was set to collect £12bn this year before windfall tax added £5bn more. Only 90% of this £17bn lies in Scottish waters, But this still wipes out the deficit, leaving a £2-3bn surplus. Which explodes the myth North Sea is finished.

#1035—341 words

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Tweedledumb vs. Twaddledee

“Your automobile can be any color you want, as long s it’s black.”

—Henry Ford, launching his Model T

The candidates for the vacant post of PM made the obligatory brief stop in the colonies when they attended hustings in Scotland and Northern Ireland on August 16th and 17th respectively. Given that there are barely 600 members (0.37% of their UK total) and no elected representatives in Northern Ireland, the latter looks like a fool’s errand or gesture politics. Or both. That the “unionist” part of the “Conservative and Unionist” parts refers to Ireland, and not Scotland, is all the more bizarre. It was demonstrably unsuccessful, as the Republic flew the coop exactly a century ago and shows zero inclination to return to the fold. As for the fragment that remains:

“Tories are becoming the England Nationalist Party…Choosing between Rishi and Liz is Hobson’s Choice”

—Conservative and Unionist party members in NI

The hustings held in Perth were less pointless, as there are 11,000 members (6.8% of the UK total) in Scotland. Tories provide the Opposition in the Scottish Parliament and still send six of Scotland’s 59 MP’s to Westminster—the same number as a century ago.

While they may clash on details of Tory policy, they are pretty much united when it comes to dealing with Scotland. Neither Sunak nor Truss has waivered on what is now a firmly entrenched Tory position—it is not the time for a new independence referendum. Truss has modified her earlier undiplomatic statement that she would “ignore Nicola Sturgeon”, so that both now want to deal firmly with her government to benefit the union as a whole. As for real issues affecting mainly Scotland, little was said beyond the ritual dirge condemning the SNP-led Scottish Government that has been the Scottish Tories leitmotif since Douglas Ross became leader.

“What people in Scotland want is… to see their governments, Scottish and UK governments working together”

—Rishi Sunak

It is a nice sentiment, but we reckon Scottish people probably know more about what people in Scotland want than Sunak. This disconnect is highlighted by his comment during the hustings that the idea of another referendum was “barmy” hardly acknowledges that this is a policy of the majority of the Scottish Parliament with a better democratic mandate than his own party at Westminster.

Sunak used his past to pitch himself to unsure Tories. He bragged about his various achievements in government, such as the furlough scheme and support for business during Covid. The sense was of someone losing the room during a job interview. But With Truss still soaring ahead in the polls, he came across slightly desperate.

“We’ve had several decades of low growth across the United Kingdom.”

—Liz Truss

We have indeed. But who has been steering the ship for the last 12 years? Why, her Tories, with her an MP for the entire time and am influential government minister for half of it

I was worried about disruption, disruption didn’t take place.”

—Liz Truss

Talking about why she didn’t initially back Brexit, Truss said she was worried that it might end up disruptive but has been reassured by its implementation. To that we can only wonder what version of the UK she has been living in, because it certainly hasn’t been the same one as we have.

Truss came across tired and complacent, as if bored of the sound of her own voice. In contrast to Sunak, her pitch was geared to the future—promising Scotland free ports and smoother whisky export opportunities.

“Tory front-runner Liz Truss playing the populist card getting into the gutter in Perth in front of the party faithful. Says she will legislate to allow the Rwanda one-way deportation scheme to be expanded to other countries. Nasty, toxic Toryism trafficking in vulnerable people.”

—Gerry Hassan

Neither contestant had more than warm words to address today’s burning issue: the cost of living crisis. Nor did they explain how their various promises were to be funded under the burden of over £2 trillion on debt, nor explanation/remedy why the UK was being hit harder by inflation and probable recession than any other G7 country.

Polling shows that Truss is out in front with Conservative voters in Scotland, in line with the UK as a whole. More interestingly, it also shows around one quarter of voters will be more likely to back independence, regardless of who wins the race to replace Boris.

In truth, it will make little difference to Scotland who becomes PM because the arrogant attitude towards Scotland’s differing opinions will continue. The truly frightening thought is that it may be worse than these three years under Brexit Boris, whose boisterous antics at least had some entertainment value.

#1034—758 words

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Union Myth-Take 4

“UK will be a high growth, high skills, high wage  economy.”

After briefly rising in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, real weekly wages fell back below their 2008 level, as workers came off furlough. This fall in real wages reflects the highest inflation since the 1970’s (5.4% now; >9% by autimn).

The UK may claim to be the fifth-richest country in the world, but this is not reflected in the productivity, nor wealth per person. This trend is shown in this chart below.

Historical Productivity Comparison with Neighbours (Source: Financial Times

This results in the UK trailing most of its neighbours and those with whom it competes internationally, with Scotland’s productivity trailing even the UK average, as shown in the chart below.

Developed Countries, Ranked by Productivity

Declines in the UK balance of trade were once compensated for by “invisibles”, such as financial services,. But, by June 2022, goods exports were barely half the value of imports and barriers from Brexit had weakened the financial sector’s contribution. This has had the effect of devaluing the British pound against the US dollar majing imports increasingly expensive, as shown in the chart below.

Historical Value of the £UK against the $US

The lack of either new “high skill; high wage” jobs, or “levelling up” successes to deal with borrowing at a rate of £264 bn a year, (88% of which is interest on a £2.4 tn debt) makes any “high-wage” economic recovery increasingly difficult—if not impossible— any time soon.

#1033—209 words

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Sturgeon’s Stavka Stays Shtum

Liz Truss appealing to darkest Tunbridge Wells by suggesting any government she led would ignore Nicola Sturgeon is political folly for any unionist.  Over a year ago in May 2021, this site featured a blog entitled “Sturgeons Stavka”, in which the talents of her new 10-member Cabinet was discussed. The conclusion was this would be a government with ideas to leave both Tory and Labour opponents floundering

We were wrong; the noise you hear is the munching of a big slice of humble pie.

Ms Sturgeon has lost the plot—not that she does not remain the best politician operating in Scotland. Back in May 2021, she was riding high, having given a master class in leading a nation through the Covid crisis and delivering on major projects like the Queensferry Crossing or EGIP electrification.

Since then, ossification has set in. Declaring an independence referendum to be held on October 19th has been the only news. The silence from her Cabinet has been deafening. What’s going on? Surely electoral success, her steady hand on the tiller against a backdrop of ineffectual opposition from Ross or Sarwar and bonkers Boris self-immolating in No 10 should mean things only getting better.

As regular readers will know, this site takes a pro-independence stance in matters political. That said, it also attempts to be a critical friend to that cause, pointing out overlooked ideas and promoting debate. But, with the last year of Sturgeon’s Stavka looking like a damp squib the referendum’s jaikit is on a shoogly nail.

The problem appears to be Ms Sturgeon herself. Whereas Alec Salmond’s robust ego handled opposing views from senior colleagues aas debate, and not a threat, Ms Sturgeon is behaving as if a palace coup were in train. Our FM does not like criticism and the Cabinet seems to have been muzzled and become a rubber stamp. Even Cabinet Secretaries now avoid challenging her, or showing much public presence.

As examples, in the previous Cabinet, Kevin Stewart and Joe Fitzpatrick had already into a passive “don’t-make-waves” roles. Their more experienced replacements have been equally silent. Shona Robison’s massive portfolio covers Social Justice and Housing (each needing undivided attention), as well as Local Government, currently in revolt because of ham-fisted control and budgeting. Angela Constance has the Drug Policy brief, but after a year in post, deaths remain four times that of other UK nationss.

Margaret Thatcher reportedly said she only needed two or three good men to help run the show. Nicola prefers women but doesn’t make use of either. Keith Brown was once willing to challenge, but was moved and has been singularly low-profile in the Justice brief—far more so than Kenny MacAskill, whose headlines over integration of Police Scotland, and culling of District Courts made him famous.

The urbane Angus Robertson took over the Constitution brief from the equally urbane Mike Russell, but is seldom in media as Mike was. Shirley-Anne Somerville took over the can of worms that is Education from John Swinney (as loyal a lieutenant as anyone could want), but her more abrasive style sits badly with unions and parents and is seldom seen defending PISA scores. Health combined with Social Care is a promising idea, but so far, little more than papering over the gulf between with Joint Boards has happened. Granted, creating a National Care Service in current times would tax Nye Bevan. Unfortunately, the affable, inexperienced Humza Yousef is no Nye Bevan.

Assigning Cabinet roles to the young and thrusting is no bad thing. But when ambition is cautious, Ms Sturgeon can dominate the Government more than is good for democracy. Her Cabinet lacks balance,d opinions, especially as it placess too little emphasis on the economy and its growth. Combining economy and finance under Kate Forbes is a very British construct. For all the talk of being European, the SNP remains a classic British party in many respects.  Even before independence, public finance depends on the strength of the Scottish economy, which receives scant attention.  The tax powers the SNP clamored for come with responsibility and unpopularity attached. But Ms Sturgeon’s avoids those to focus is to give voters what they want. The means to pay for it gets short shrift. Her manifesto is commitments simply don’t add up. 

While the voters still think the SNP is competent, much evidence is mounting that Sturgeon’s Government is far from that.  Danger flags include PISA scores, incomplete ferries, resentful councils (even SNP ones), drug death statistics and stalled poll levels supporting independence. She remains lucky, in that her opponents have been so weak and very lucky that Westminster Tories are such clots when dealing with what they treat as the Provinces.

But all that cuts little ice with Scottish business, nor the absence of any big ideas to sway Scotland’s ambitious middle class who see no economic benefit because the case has yet to be made. The claptrap coming out of Holyrood about “cleaner, greener, fairer, more prosperous society” needs real policy flesh to be put on such spindly bones.

#1032—848 words

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Union Myth-Take 3

“UK’s Size Creates Wealth by “Punching Above Our Weight”

A major claim by the UK has been it enjoys “the fastest growth in the G7. This statement is true for the last year but ignores the fact that the UK economy shrank more than other G7 members when Covid hit and therefore had the furthest to recover.  The World Bank forecast for the next year is that UK will grow the slowest among G7 members, if at all.

Looking back pre-pandemic, the argument that UK’s size brought prosperity does not hold water. Comparison with some rich countries  is shown in the table below.

Global Economy; GDP Purchasing Power Parity Comparisons, data from 2020

Source: https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/rankings/gdp_per_capita_ppp/G7/

Within the UK itself, economic disparity among regions and nations is worsening, despite three years of “leveling-up”. Of the dozen regions and nations of the UK some of the most glaring disparities are shown in the table below. Although comparisons between the tables cannot be made directly, rough comparisons show disadvantages regions and nations in the UK performing 30-50% below small European countries.

ONS GDP data for Sub-national regions of the UK, May 2021

Source: https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/grossdomesticproductgdp/bulletins/regionaleconomicactivitybygrossdomesticproductuk/1998to2018

#1031—314 words

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Union Myth-Take 2

UK Trade with the EU Is Higher Than pre-Brexit Levels”

Despite cross-channel hold-ups, lorry driver shortages and labour shortages as many EU nationals have gone home, UK trade with the EU has improved over the last five years. However, EU trade is increasing as a proportion of total trade and the trade deficit with the EU has grown twice as fast as with the rest of the world. According to ONS:

 “Total exports of goods increased by £2.3 billion (7.4%) in May 2022, Goods exports to the EU reached £16.9 billion in May 2022. Though this is the highest level since the series began in 1997; rising prices in 2022 mean removing the effect of inflation, exports to the EU actually rose to only £13.9 billion, the highest levels since December 2020.”

UK Office of National Statistics

ONS statistics for UK trade comparing the last two quarters are shown in the Table below.

This shows the 16.1% growth in exports to the EU was overtaken by a n 18.6% growth in imports from the EU, with a 31.0% trade imbalance having swelled by 5.8%. Meanwhile, non-EU trade, where Brexit should be showing benefits, grew by barely half the increase in EU trade. Looking further back, the trade deficit with the EU has effectively doubled See the chart below.

At present, it is not clear whether the reduction over the last two years is structural or caused by current factors like Covid. However, recent figures given in Table 1 imply it is worsening again.

#1030—321 words

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Full of Eastern Promise

The date is now set for “IndyRef2”: October 19th next year. Since that was announced, the airwaves have been fair buzzing. Those in favour of “Yes” argue Scotland must control all its own resources to combat Brexit, Covid and the cost of living combined. Those in favour of “No” claim this is not the time to ask. Despite years of discussion, many still sit on the “mebbes aye/mebbes naw” fence.

But the real issue is whether enough Scots trust the present Scottish Government to make a better fist of running the country than Westminster. They may have brought in social benefits, free prescriptions, scrapped university fees, etc., but it is not just heir opponents who see these as buying votes. The largely unionist middle class regard actual performance on Health, Education, etc. to be unimpressive and remain sceptical what independence might achieve.

With a ministerial track record of moderate competence, with little by way of standout achievements or vision, fifteen years of SNP government appears to have marked time since 2014— laudable Covid handling and electoral success notwithstanding. A recent example is Ms Jenny Gilruth’s rocky road through her first six months as Scotland’s Transport Minister. Between the rail strike, cancelled flights at overcrowded airports, delayed ferries and keeping her Green colleagues on-side as post-Covid traffic jams return, she has not had her troubles to seek.

For her, good news and photo ops have been thin on the ground, despite a new station at Reston, the Edinburgh trams creeping towards Newhaven and councils allowed to run their own bus services.

Now that Nicola Sturgeon is putting the indy jalopy back on the road, the usual Cabinet girnfest how little can be done with the limited powers they have cuts little ice with the uncommitted middle ground they must convert to “Yes” to win any second referendum. Such people react badly to girning, nor are they moved by generous social programmes that the SNP has favoured to date. The middle ground needs more than this; they need visionary inspiration what an independent Scotland could provide them that is unavailable in this union.

Ms Gilruth could provide this by ditching the “don’t-make-waves” passivity that her seven predecessors suffered from. Her post offers possibilities to break the mould and inspire a dubious public. To use a homespun American phrase: “I would rather light a candle than curse her darkness”.

For a start, two pieces of “low-hanging fruit” spring to mind, each offering a boost to public transport use, demonstrate innovation, please the Greens and could take effect before the October 2023 window. They are:

  1. Oyster-style card (a.k.a. “Integrated Ticketing—already touted for two decades) for use across Scotland. Not only would this encourage locals onto all forms of public transport but it would assist tourism, especially Europeans familiar with such schemes..
  2. Timetable co-ordination at transfer points. This involves persuading all operators in a region to synchronise, with local bus services feeding trains. Buses parallel to train/tram are an inefficient waste of precious

Getting both up and running over the next 16 months will challenge officials at Transport Scotland and awake desire for something more ambitious that can be conceived and launched—if not completed—in time to inspire votes in  the referendum.

It will require public commitment from the minister to challenge Transport Scotland to seek projects more imaginative than dualling the A9 or returning train service to Leven. One such possibility is an Eastern Hub for the capital.

Edinburgh suffers increasingly sclerotic traffic, glacial bus service and absence of any suburban rail net. ECC favours Lothian Buses, because its 91% ownership augments their income. While alternatives get short shrift, its role as a regional transport hub is ignored. Unlike Glasgow’s SPT, there IS no system.

The East Coast Main Line (ECML) is a public transport success, as is its revamped terminus at Waverley. But for arriving passengers, Edinburgh’s buses may as well be on the moon. Scattered across a dozen or more stops, there is no guidance to a myriad city centre buses, all an uphill slog out of five exits.

As well as many ScotRail routes, there are six long-distance carriers at Waverley serving England through Berwick. But al these bring congestion onto the ECML. Transport Scotland and Network Rail have a solution: to quadruple the line the 35 km between Portobello and Drem. Since shifting just 1 km of ECML away from mine workings cost £57 million, such a project would cost over £2 billion, no cost/benefit analysis justification.

At a fraction of that cost, an “Eastern Hub” would provide a much more effective easing of ECML congestion while integrating all transport modes on the eastern approaches to Edinburgh, ease road congestion both in the City and the A720 bypass and future-proof the services into the bargain.

What was once Portobello goods yard and Freightliner Terminal provides a large brownfield site adjacent to the A1 at Milton Link. West of Portobello East junction a four-track station would split the Borders line from the ECML to provide a Parkway, such as GNER once proposed for Musselburgh..

Building a large park-and-ride between here and Harry Lauder Road would attract a major amount of car traffic heading into the city. These would be lured by a four-trains-an-hour service to Waverley ad beyond by the Borders, North Berwick and a new hourly ScotRail Dunbar/Berwick service calling here. Having the long-distance services use it as a parkway would remove the need of anyone transferring to them having to go to Waverley. By providing a bus station and having a fan of Lothian routes serve it, along with the East Coast X5 and X7 long distance services, this would be a true multi-mode hub and a model for elsewhere.

Though the station itself would cause, not ease, ECML congestion, if the 5 km of line between Waverley and there were quadrupled, all ECML traffic could be kept separate from Borders traffic ad empty movements to/from Craigentinny carriage sidings.

The quadrupling would achieved by reinstating double tracks in both Calton tunnels, relaying track on the Abbeyhill/Piershill loop, and re-using the second (western) underbridge on Portobello road. Because this involves only existing rights-of-way and no new overbridges. Total cost for station and quadrupling should be of the order of Waverley’s £130 million revamp a decade ago. This is much cheaper and offers far more benefits than simply quadrupling the ECML to Drem.

By providing more slots a future South Subutban service to Newington and Morningside could increase train frequency to the city centre to six an hour, each of which could be made more useful by running through Waverley to either Edinburgh Gateway (for the airport) or Kirknewton/Livingston. This later would ease A720 bypass traffic.

So, in summary, for one tenth the cost of Edinburgh’s trams or a quarter the cost of Borders rail, this revolutionary Eastern Hub would solve a growing traffic chaos in Edinburgh’s fast-growing commuter hinterland and thereby provide a flagship project for the Transport Minister to present as an example of what might be achieved with independence.

#1029, 1,176 words

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Pro-Life v. Roe v. Wade

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.

Europe

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 Laws in Europe 2022

Asia

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.

The Americas

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.”

—Majority Opinion, Justice Samuel Alito.

#1029—1,058 words

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The Road to Scindy VII—A Case for the Union?

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.[50] (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1 GDP per head of population, 2020

Source: OECD level of GDP per capita and productivity dataset

  • Sustained this higher wealth over time. With the exception of Finland in 2015, GDP per capita has been higher in all the comparator countries in every year since 2000.[51] (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2 GDP per head of population over time, 1970-2020

Source: OECD level of GDP per capita and productivity dataset

  • 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.[52] (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

Source: OECD employment rate data

In addition, the comparator countries have:

  • 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.[53] (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4 Debt as a share of GDP, 1995-2020

Source: General government – General government debt – OECD Data

  • Deficit: similarly, the UK’s fiscal deficit is high in comparison to the comparator nations.[54] (See Figure 5.)

Figure 5 General government deficit (% of GDP), 1995-2020

Source: OECD general government deficit data

  • Generally achieved low and stable inflation[55] (See Figure 6.)

Figure 6 Year on year annual inflation rates (%), 1990-2021

Source: OECD – Inflation (CPI) data

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.[56]

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

Key Point

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).[57] 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.)

Figure 7 GDP per hour worked, 2020

Source: OECD level of GDP per capita and productivity dataset

Figure 8 GDP per hour worked over time, 1970-2020

Source: OECD level of GDP per capita and productivity dataset

  • 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.[58] (See Figure 9.)

Figure 9 Gross expenditure on research and development as percentage of GDP, 2020

Source: OECD gross domestic spending on research and development (R&D) data

  • 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.[59] (See Figure 10.)

Figure 10 Investment in business enterprise research and development (% of GDP), 2019

Source: Gross expenditure on research and development Scotland 2019 – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)

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.[60](See Figure 11.)

Figure 11 Business investment as a share of GDP over time, 1998-2020

Sources: GDP and spending – Investment by sector – OECD Data and Gross fixed capital formation (% of GDP) | Data (worldbank.org). Business investment as a share of GDP has been calculated by multiplying Gross Fixed Capital Formation (GFCF) expressed as a percentage of GDP by the proportion of corporate investment in total GFCF for each country.

  • 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).[61]

Global surveys/indices

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.[62]
  • 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.[63]
  • 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).[64]
  • 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.[65]
  • 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.[66]

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

Key Point

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.[67]

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.[68] (See Figure 12.)

Figure 12 Income inequality (Gini coefficient, 0% = complete equality; 100% = complete inequality), 2020 or latest available

Source: OECD income inequality data

  • 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).[69] (See Figure 13.)

Figure 13 Gross household disposable income ( US dollars per capita), 2020 or latest available

Source: OECD Household disposable income data

  • 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.[70] (See Figure 14.)

Figure 14 Poverty rates, 2020 or latest available

Source: OECD poverty rate data

  • There are fewer children and pensioners living in poverty in 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.[71] (See Figure 15.)

Figure 15 Poverty rates (total, 0-17 year-olds and people aged 66 year and older), 2020 or latest available

Source: OECD poverty rate data

  • 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%.[72] (See Figure 16.)

Figure 16 Child specific material deprivation rate by age (children aged 1 to 15), 2014

Source: Child specific material deprivation by age (children aged 1 to 15 years), Eurostat

  • 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.[73] (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.[74]

Figure 17 Global Social Mobility Index, 2020 (country rankings in brackets)

Source: Global Social Mobility Index 2020 | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)

  • 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).[75]

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.[76]
  • 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).[77]
  • 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.[78]
  • 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).[79]
  • 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”.[80]

Regional equality

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.[81]

Professor Philip McCann[82] 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”.[83] Indeed, as referenced earlier, successive UK Governments have acknowledged this persistent issue.[84]

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[85] and policy has deliberately[86] 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[87]), 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.[88]
  • 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%).[89] (See Figure 18.)

Figure 18 Share of workers earning less than two-thirds of median earnings (%), 2020 or latest available

Source: Earnings and wages – Wage levels – OECD Data

  • 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%.[90]
  • 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%.[91] (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%.[92]
  • 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.[93]
  • 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.

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