Monthly Archives: August 2014

Health – the Glasgow Effect

Posted by Euan Bennet on 28/08/2014

Still reeling from my post from the other day going viral – over 20,000 views yesterday and already over 8,000 today – not entirely sure what I did right. Thanks everyone who read it and shared it! Just a quick post today because this video was posted in the comments and it touches on some stuff I’ve been thinking about recently:

Back in May 2014, Wings over Scotland posted an article about an academic study which tried to explain the Glasgow Effect – that is, why Scotland and Glasgow in particular have such poor health and life expectancy indicators when compared to the rest of Europe.

The study was carried out by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health in 2011, and can be found here: click here to read the GCPH report. This is an academic study which analyses possible causes for the divergence in mortality rates between Glasgow, Scotland, and Europe. It’s a very detailed report which uses research techniques to measure the likelihood that each considered factor contributes to the effect. Page 61-64 show the summaries of all the (17) factors considered. Page 72 shows the simplified diagram of factors combining. 

The report identifies vulnerabilities, triggers, mechanisms and outcomes. Explanations are grouped into ‘upstream’, ‘midstream’, and ‘downstream’ categories. For example, poverty and inequality are upstream, but drug overdoses are downstream.

The report found that the most likely trigger for mortality divergence starting in 1980 is ‘political attack’.

A factor in the political attack found in the report is the stress of powerlessness mentioned in the video. Coincidentally for the mortality divergence beginning in 1980, the previous year had seen a majority of 52% vote Yes to devolution, but the result overturned by the disgraceful and anti-democratic ‘40% rule’.

The report mentions that the first point of divergence of Scottish mortality rates, in the 1950s, cannot be easily explained. Coincidentally, 1949 was the year that the Scottish Covenant was delivered to Westminster; a petition calling for a Scottish Parliament, signed by over 2 million people out of a population of 5.1 million. It was ignored. 

Past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour. Scotland’s mortality rate diverged from the rest of Europe in 1950 after our democratic will was ignored. It diverged again, further, after our democratic will was ignored for a second time. Though the subsequent ‘political attack’, to use the words of the report, will surely have accelerated that decline. If there is a No vote next month, then that is the greatest expression of powerlessness yet. A No vote says that we are happy to leave the power in someone else’s hands instead of taking it for ourselves. The ‘political attack’ that will follow will eclipse what was seen in the 1980s, whichever party is in power at Westminster

Conclusion

Independence doesn’t guarantee an improvement in our health and mortality, but it at least gives a chance to tackle the root causes instead of just futilely treating symptoms. A No vote, based on past evidence, will make things worse.

#PatronisingBTLady – it’s time to get angry

Posted by Euan Bennet on 27/08/2014

This video is genuinely the latest campaign broadcast from the Better Together campaign. Not surprisingly, comments are disabled on YouTube. It’s difficult to know where to start when listing what is wrong with it, but Logic’s Rock and Furcoatnaenicks have had a good shot at it. Women for Independence are reporting a surge in support after the video was broadcast. Take a look at their own video and compare & contrast the approaches:

Thankfully, the internet being the internet, the Better Together video was instantly ripped into tiny shreds by the hilarious and creative people of Generation Yes. A meme template was created and shortly afterwards the tag #PatronisingBTLady was trending UK-wide. 

PatronisingBTLady_LadyAlba

With apologies to Lady Alba

PatronisingBTLady_children PatronisingBTLady_defence_welfare

Why Patronising BT Lady is bad

As much as I enjoyed the responses and joined in the meme creation, there is a very serious side to this video. A great deal of focus was given to the shocking way that the video patronises 51% of the population, and rightly so. Within the scope of this blog however, the video is pretty much our Bete Noir. 

The sub-title for this blog is “applying scientific rigour to the facts and figures of the independence debate”. In nearly all of the posts I have used classic scientific techniques like ‘examining the evidence’ and ‘past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour’. I have tried to set out the facts as they are established and examine the conclusions that can be made based on the evidence – in short, I’ve shown my working.

The patronising Better Together video actually disgusts me, because the underlying and explicit message from it is “don’t think, just vote No”. They don’t want people to make an informed decision. You should ignore “the man on the telly”. You shouldn’t even discuss it with your partner or children. Just go with your gut feeling and BE AFRAID OF CHANGE. Don’t ask what will change after a No vote. Don’t examine what the No campaign are saying. Stay in your comfort zone and don’t try to think. Back in your box, you fucking prole.

This attitude makes me so angry. In my day job I have had the opportunity to teach science to children of primary school and secondary school age, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students. It’s a very rewarding challenge. My number one priority for any student is to encourage them to think for themselves. True understanding can only come when you conceive of an idea or a concept in your own mind – no one can force you to understand something. 

The referendum is the biggest decision that has ever been made by people in Scotland. For the first time ever, a democratic decision will be made about the way our country is governed. For ANY campaign group, let alone one of the two main campaigns, to advocate a message such as this of “don’t engage, just vote based on fear”, is an absolute disgrace. It says everything we need to know about the attitude of those campaigning for a No vote. They just want to keep us in our place. How DARE the Yes campaign try to improve our country?! How DARE we get above ourselves and ask if this is the best we can achieve?

PatronisingBTLady_TV

This is what Better Together wants everyone in Scotland to do. Back in your box. Don’t even try to make things better.

The oil comment – pedant alert

A line in the video that bugged me for pedantic reasons rather than the intellectual insult of the rest of it, was the line “oil will pay for it all – so you can rely on oil for everything, can you?”. Literally no one in the Yes campaign has ever said that was the case. The case spelled out in the White Paper, and the message taken out onto the streets by all the groups campaigning for a Yes vote has consistently been that oil is a bonus, NOT the basis of the Scottish economy. In the posts on this blog the only times I have mentioned the word oil is in sentences like “and I haven’t even mentioned oil and gas”. 

Conclusion

Throughout the campaign I have asked No voters to explain why they are voting No. I have yet to get a coherent answer. In one particularly special case, a long-time friend refused point blank to engage with me because he “knows I’m a Yes supporter” and  “there is no way I’m going to read all that [my brief case outlining my reasons]” before deleting the conversation.

Based on the existence of the Patronising BT Lady video, these are the people the No campaign are relying on. They want the future of our country decided by the apathetic, disengaged voters who the tame media have managed to keep uninformed. They want the uninformed to force the rest of us to, as Greg says, “legitimise our corrupt, undemocratic, quasi-democracy”. The No campaign want to use your fear of the unknown to endorse a system that is elitist, sectarian, war-mongering, unequal, human rights-abusing, child-abusing, and above all unreformable. They want you to turn down your one opportunity to build a better country.

Are you going to let them have their way?

 

(It is likely that…) Independence will bring a bigger dividend than even the Yes campaign predict

Posted by Euan Bennet on 26/08/2014

This is a piece that I’ve had the idea for for a while. Some of the “hidden” benefits of independence have been discussed elsewhere, such as the fact that £billions of defence spending allocated as “in Scotland” actually never comes near Scotland. That’s been quantified in the White Paper as a defence spend of £2.5billion will be £1billion less than is currently allocated, but about £1billion MORE than is actually spent – regardless of the purpose that’s an extra billion quid a year stimulating the economy. On top of that we will actually have proper defences for the first time in years, and kick Trident the fuck out of here.

Speaking of Trident, that’s another £160 million per year saving for Scotland – not including the planned £100billion replacement cost that Westminster is immorally choosing to spend a fortune on when 25% of children live in poverty.

Another “independence dividend” that has been mentioned is not having to pay our £60million share every year towards keeping Westminster MPs and Lords in the manner to which they have become accustomed. There are now 850 unelected Lords, each of whom claims an attendance allowance of £300 per day just for turning up to drink subsidised booze and sleep in the debating chamber – and that’s on top of all of their other public-funded expenses.

Then there is the debt repayments. This gets a bit complicated but it’s explained well here – £4billion a year.

What’s that total then? Over £5.2billion per year in savings already, plus £1billion extra economic stimulus compared to now. Not a bad start, but let’s look deeper.

HS2

A lovely future saving would also be Scotland’s share of HS2 – a joke (in international terms) of a model train set that is not going to come within 400 miles of Scotland, yet if there is a No vote we will pay an estimated £4.8billion towards its construction

But since that’s planned future spending, I won’t include it in the total.

VAT – hidden in plain sight

VAT is, of course, one of the major economic powers that is currently retained by Westminster. It is a major source of revenue for the Treasury (£87.7billion – over 13% of total revenue in 2013/14). Some of this tax is rightly allocated as “Scottish” revenue by the UK Treasury, but a great deal of it isn’t: as explained here, an unknown amount of VAT is allocated according to where the Head Office of the company paying it is located. In a great many cases, that means London.

Export duty

In the UK, export duty is calculated based on which port the exports leave from. To take one example, a lot of the £3.9billion of international whisky exports every year are shipped from ports in England – therefore the export duty is not allocated as Scottish, even though the product is legally protected as made in Scotland!

Pensions

To explain this, all that is really required is an image. I’ll add a few words below, just in case.

Image credit: Business for Scotland. Beware the Bogs of Ireland!

The stark difference in life expectancy means that Scottish pensioners are effectively subsidising South-East England pensioners by dying early. A low life expectancy means many people in Scotland are dying either before retirement or not long after retirement. A high life expectancy means people generally live longer after retirement – 14 years on average in SE England. There is no pension “pot” despite what the No campaign are claiming – pensions are funded out of general taxation. Pensions will be more affordable in Scotland than the UK average. At the moment we are being forced to pay as if we have the UK average life expectancy when in fact we really don’t – in some parts of Glasgow male life expectancy is less than that in Gaza.

Civil Service

Now we’re into uncharted territory. The civil service – the people who actually run the country – has hardly been talked about during the referendum campaign. Under devolution the Scottish Government has its own civil service who work on Devolved matters. The UK civil service is responsible for all Reserved matters. See here for a great graphic showing what these are.

The UK civil service in 2013 employed 448,840 people. 

After independence, the Scottish Civil Service will expand to take on the new responsibilities – all powers, rather than the limited powers that they have under devolution. This will bring a) some savings to the Scottish budget, and b) even more significantly, a large number of jobs instantly created in Scotland, with the associated knock-on economic impact of that.

How do we estimate this?

On wholly reserved matters, let’s assume a population share of 8.6% of the civil service is working on Scotland’s “share” of their department. We can also assume that the same number or fewer jobs will be created in Scotland for the new civil service departments after independence. Let’s consider the “big three” departments for Reserved matters, based on a median civil service salary of £22,850 (http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/news_and_events/facts-about-civil-and-public-services/):

Department

Number of UK jobs

Number for Scotland

Average total cost of salaries

Work and Pensions

104,890

9021

£206 million

HMRC

72,740

6256

£143 million

Ministry of Defence

49,100

4223

£ 96 million

 

By the time the numerous smaller departments are added in, the total cost on salaries alone will be over half a billion pounds. Remember, we are currently paying this already under the Union, for nearly all of these jobs to be supported in London. The independence dividend is the chance to build a streamlined, efficient civil service based in Scotland. Even if no improvements were made in efficiency, we are still talking about nearly 20,000 jobs created instantly in Scotland from the big three departments alone, with more than £400 million extra investment in the local economy.

Conclusion

The most important thing to remember when considering the costs and financial aspects of the debate is that we already pay for everything at the moment, and then some. If on day one of independence, we continue to do things exactly as they are at the moment, then we’ll be starting off with savings of over £6billion per year (as a pessimistic estimate) and beyond that, extra investment in our economy of over £2billion per year. This is even before considering borrowing powers, oil and gas revenue, and Crown estate revenue – the impact of each of these individually will dwarf the total estimates I’ve made here.

The choice we face in the referendum is: do you want this money to stay in Scotland and be spent on our population? Or do you want our vast wealth to continue to be squandered on propping up the mega-wealthy and major London infrastructure projects?

Edit 10:15am on 28/08/2014: replaced “export tax” with “export duty” for clarification.

Edit 14:25pm on 28/08/2014: added some links for Trident running/replacement costs.

Euan’s Ramblings: collected for reference

Posted by Euan Bennet on 26/08/2014

Since I’ve started using Twitter properly, a lot more traffic has been coming to the blog. So now seems like a good time to post a summary of my articles so far. There are two reasons for this: 1) so that people can easily see what I’ve written about in case they want to read more (i.e. they haven’t been chased off by the first thousand words they encounter in any given article), and 2) so that I can quickly and easily find what I’ve written when I need to send the link to someone. Greg’s system has worked pretty well for me finding specific posts of his, so I’m going to shamelessly copy him.

Some of these posts are a year old so there may be better sources to link to now. However, everything was correct at the time of writing.

  • Pensions – a short post pointing towards the relevant information that was established last year about pensions. The scare stories that are still brought out occasionally are just wrong.
  • Comparisons of democracy – my most-read piece for a while (read by over seven people!!), seeing democracy in the UK and Scotland compared to comparable nations is equally surprising and shocking.

All I ask is that people make a properly informed decision after impassively examining the evidence. My mission statement for the blog was to provide sources for people to decide for themselves, and inhabit the niche of evidence-based decisions. We need to get away from politicians lecturing us from pedestals and use the available information to decide for ourselves.

The high concept of democracy

Posted by Euan Bennet on 25/08/2014

Ahead of tonight’s TV debate, I wanted to write a post about what the vote on September the 18th is actually about, rather than whatever diversionary rabbit-hole the TV debate runs down. I’ve already expressed my opinions about the flawed format of the debates, and the media’s shameful lack of effort to engage with the real debate that is happening between individuals and equals. https://scienceofindependence.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/a-few-thoughts-on-tv-debates/. I’m finishing this as the debate is on and I’m hearing that it’s been a bit more productive than the last one, so that’s good.

After the first TV debate, a friend on Facebook challenged me to write “why vote Yes” in a maximum of two sentences. My answer?

In one word: democracy. It’s the catalyst for better governance instantly due to proportional representation in elections, where the people making the decisions will have to live with the consequences and justify it to the electorate in a system where there are no “safe seats”, no governments under the thumb of lobby groups forcing through policies without appropriate scrutiny, and a corruption level of “claiming the wrong taxi receipts is a resignation offence”.

 

If my second sentence is too long, then here is a shorter alternative: with 100% influence instead of 4% influence, it will actually be possible to kick out governments who make bad decisions.

 

In the weeks that followed I have written about improved democracy and the lack of corruption present now or ever in the Scottish Parliament. I hope that I have demonstrated beyond doubt that it is a fact that a Yes vote will improve our democracy overnight.

It has taken me some time realise that the absolute, core reason that I am voting Yes is for democracy. Previously when asked I would have listed off as many reasons as Greg listed here, and then some more. Now having spent a lot of time thinking about it, talking about it, and writing about it, I have reached the simple conclusion that I want better democracy. Everything else follows from that basis.

A part of the reasoning behind what I’ve written on this blog is the saying “the best prediction of future behaviour is past behaviour”. The UK is not a functioning democracy in comparison to other Western nations. People have been trying to reform it for over 100 years with no success. I’ve had people tell me that voting Yes is giving up – really? How many more centuries should we try to reform the un-reformable? How many more children in poverty is “the Union” worth?   

Einstein is attributed with the quote “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, yet expecting different results”. The UK’s quasi-democracy is, by that definition, totally insane. The medieval First-past-the-post electoral system has firmly entrenched two parties who for the past 35 years have taken it in turns to rule with only minor ideological differences. We are now at the stage where after the European Parliament elections in May, both main UK parties are desperately trying to appeal to the 10% of the electorate who voted for racists, rather than trying to appeal to the 66% of the electorate who didn’t bother to vote.

In UK elections, the main parties can promise whatever they like and then do the exact opposite, with no democratic recourse from the voters. Even if the voters managed to punish them by voting someone else in (not an easy task), both parties know they just need to wait a few years until it is their turn again. How is that democratic? How is that ever going to reflect the will of the people?

The UK voting system is such that only a handful of “swing seats” actually matter. Thus both main parties tailor their policies to attract support from the people living in these seats. Thus the political ideologies converge. And voters everywhere are left without a meaningful choice.

Are you one of the 84% of people who want the NHS to remain public? Tough, you can vote for one lot to privatise it now or the other lot to privatise it now but slower, whatever that means.

Perhaps you are experiencing financial difficulties or care about those less fortunate in society than? Tough, you can vote for one lot who are cutting benefits and dismantling the welfare state, or the other lot who want to be even tougher.

Maybe you feel strongly about foreign policy, and would like to see diplomacy replacing force and a relationship of equals between nations rather than trying to strut in the shade of former glories? Tough, you can vote for one lot of illegal warmongers, or the other lot of illegal warmongers.

 

The UK is not a functional democracy

I’m sure the point has been made. In the above example I mentioned two main parties because that is effectively all that the choice is between. While other parties do exist, under the First-past-the-post voting system it is almost impossible for minor parties to establish a strong voice in Parliament, much less form a government.

The only meaningful political choice available to this generation of UK citizens is a Yes vote in the referendum. In the aftermath of a Yes vote, the people of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland will have a narrow window in which to seek the democratic reforms that we have all unsuccessfully fought for for over 100 years. That is a huge challenge but it’s a chance of reform, and that small chance is more than what will be available after a No vote.

After a No vote, Westminster and the entire establish will breathe a sigh of relief, and continue with business as usual. Remember: past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour. If Westminster were serious about extra powers, they would have accepted the Scottish Government’s offer to put that option on the ballot paper. But they refused. The reason that they refused to put Devolution Max on the ballot paper is that we are already at the maximum amount of devolution that they will consider. Every single gain that we have made has been because Westminster are scared of the threat of independence. With a No vote, that threat will have been removed. Going by past behaviour, what do we predict will happen?

Greg absolutely nails it in this post (http://naekingnaequin.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/soliloquy-for-the-blind/), which I wholeheartedly endorse. It’s pretty much what I would have written, had this blog not been intended to be passive voice, analytical writing.

After a Yes vote, we will have 100% control over our government. Whichever party is elected will have to deliver on their promises. And you know what? If they don’t, we’ll elect a different government that does deliver. That’s the true gain of independence. Everything else follows from that. Gandhi is attributed with the quote “Be the change you want to see”. That’s what independence is about.

 

 

Mythbusting with evidence 2 – Why the Scottish Parliament can literally never become as corrupt as Westminster

Posted by Euan Bennet on 22/08/2014

With four weeks to go until the referendum, Yes voters took over Twitter yesterday with the hastag “#YesBecause”, which was trending worldwide within a couple of hours of its inception, and top of the UK trending list for most of the day. A fantastic wave of optimism and hope demonstrating the arguable beginnings of a groundswell of Yes support, which reached people all over the world. The “unfiltered reality” of the campaign was displayed and the mainstream media even picked up on it. 

As usual, the internet being the internet, some of the comments in response to this campaign were ill-informed, insulting, and infantile. One of the comments I spotted reminded me of a blog post I had planned a while ago, so the negativity of internet bampots has been useful for once. The comment was along the lines of “all politicians are corrupt liars, what difference does it make” – the epitome of the No campaign, there: let’s not try to change anything because it might not work. Leaving aside the obvious flaw in the argument i.e. keeping politicians within kicking distance is a heck of a motivation to do a good job, there is also the fact that the Scottish Parliament works in such a way that it is literally impossible for corruption to develop to the levels that are found in the bricks at Westminster. A bold claim? Not really: there are three very simple reasons and three very good case studies to consider.

Simple reason 1: Expenses are publicly available for all to see

There is a searchable online database of MSPs expenses claims (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/msps/12455.aspx) which have strict rules about what can and can’t be claimed as expenses. Unlike Westminster, the rules are applied to their full extent (see case studies below). Remember all the fuss when the Telegraph revealed that large numbers of Westminster MPs had been claiming duck ponds and pornography on expenses paid by public money? That can literally never happen in the Scottish Parliament.

Simple reason 2: The parliamentary code of conduct is actually enforced

The Code of Conduct (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/msps/code-of-conduct-for-msps.aspx) is a strict set of rules that determine how MSPs should behave while serving in office. Of particular interest are the sections on “paid advocacy” and “declaration of interests”. Remember all those Westminster scandals when Ministers were paid by lobby groups to force through favourable legislation? Can’t happen in Scotland. Remember when the UK Government privatised the NHS while more than half of them have commercial interests that will benefit from the privatisation? Impossible in Scotland, due to a) having a sensible code of conduct, and b) actually enforcing the behavioural standards expected of public servants.

Simple reason 3: Legislation has to pass through 3 rounds of committees in between Parliamentary readings before it is passed

The proportional voting system in the Scottish Parliament acts as an immediate check on governments. In Westminster, if the Government wants something to happen it will be forced through regardless – there are many examples of this in recent years, although most recently the Labour party has voted with the Tories on nearly every major issue. I’ve already written about how unlikely another majority government in Holyrood is.  Any minority or coalition Government in Scotland is will automatically produce better legislation than any Westminster Government simply because compromises will need to made to pass anything, meaning a pluralist input is taken on each issue. Even if the largest party wants to do something, the smaller parties and individual independent MSPs still get a say in the laws that are passed, and get to add their own influence. This sort of constructive co-operation between parties is anathema to Westminster’s medieval confrontational style, but completely natural and normal for most other countries.

On top of the proportional makeup of the Parliament, the committee structure means that even with the present majority Scottish Government, each piece of legislation is properly scrutinised by all parties before the whole Parliament votes. Again this is just the same as any other comparable country, but completely unlike Westminster.

Case Study 1: Henry McLeish

Mr McLeish was First Minister of Scotland for a year, resigning near the end of 2001. He had previously been a Westminster MP since 1987.  He resigned as First Minister following allegations that, while a Westminster MP, he had continued to claim expenses for an office which he sublet out to the local Labour Party. Famously he said that it was a “muddle, not a fiddle”.

This case study shows two things. First, the allegations were made public while Mr McLeish was an MP, but the Westminster system did nothing to reclaim the alleged £36,000 of public money once he stopped being an MP. Second, when the Scottish Parliament standards were applied, even this retrospective issue was brought to light and dealt with  – Mr McLeish resigned and repaid the money, even though there was no way that he personally could have profited from it.

Case Study 2: Wendy Alexander

Ms Alexander was the Leader of the Labour Group in the Scottish Parliament for less than a year, in 2007-08. Following her famous declaration to “Bring it on!”, referring to an independence referendum, in May 2008, evidence surfaced allegedly from within her own party that she had wrongly declared a donation of £950 to her leadership campaign the previous year. The Electoral Commission and the Police invested the matter, with the Electoral Commission stating that although there was no basis for further action, Alexander “did not take all reasonable steps” and that “there is not sufficient evidence to establish that an offence has been committed”. The Scottish Parliamentary Standards committee separately investigated the issue, which resulted in a one-day ban from Parliament as punishment for not declaring the donation on the Members’ register of interests. Facing the issue being dragged out over the summer, Ms Alexander instead decided to step down as Leader.

Case Study 3: David McLetchie

Mr McLetchie was an MSP from 1999 until his death in 2013. He was Leader of the Conservative Group in the Scottish Parliament from 1999, until “Taxigate” in 2005. It was revealed by the Sunday Herald that he had claimed over £11,000 in taxi receipts. This was a large amount of money, but the problem wasn’t the amount; it was the fact that he had claimed for journeys he had taken for Party business. This abuse of public money led to his resignation as Leader. 

 

Conclusion

To put all of this in context: Henry McLeish resigned over something that happened before the Scottish Parliament even existed. Wendy Alexander wrongly declared a £950 donation. David McLetchie handed in the wrong taxi receipts. This is the level of corruption that has been stopped in the Scottish Parliament – i.e. negligible. The system simply does not allow someone to defraud public money with impunity.

In contrast, Westminster has untold levels of corruption: the MPs expenses scandal of 2009 is still ongoing. Disgraced politicians leave Westminster only to return as unelected Lords – the public has no way to get them out of public office permanently. Of 850 Lords, more than 40 are currently not sitting in the Lords due to criminal convictions – yet there is no way to depose them! 

By all means, distrust all politicians. But at least do a bit of basic research first into the level of corruption that a) exists and b) will ever exist in the Scottish Parliament, before blindly declaring “independence won’t make a difference”. Independence will make all the difference in the world to our political system – a Yes vote is the only meaningful positive choice for reform that we will have this generation. 

 

Mythbusting with evidence 1 – “After independence it won’t be any easier to change governments we don’t like”

Posted by Euan Bennet on 14/08/2014

I accidentally came across this video from last month, made by Scottish rapper Loki:

I think it’s worth watching, and listening to what he has to say. There are a few sweary words especially towards the end. He makes some great points about institutional corruption and the fact that if there is any whiff of it continuing after independence then it’s a short trip to Edinburgh to kick the doors in. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

He is also absolutely right about getting our own house in order.

Mythbusting with evidence

With 5 weeks to go I’m hoping to post a few articles to mythbust some common misconceptions that are less frequently spoken about, but need to be addressed. This is the first of them, and is based on the quote in the title of this piece which is a slight paraphrase of what was actually said to me by someone in response to me pointing out we’ll have automatic better democracy on day 1 of independence. I asserted, as I have before, that with 100% control of our government we will instantly be more empowered than with the present 4% (now 3.6% with the recent House of Lords expansion). One of the people present disputed this, saying “I’m sure that it won’t be easy to change”. When I tried to provide evidence the subject was hastily changed.

It’s been well-documented by Wings over Scotland (the source of the above image), among others, that even with 8.6% of the Wesminster Parliament’s MPs, Scotland has not influenced the composition of the UK Government at all for the past 40 years. I’m treating the present ‘coalition’ Government as unchanged by Scottish votes, since although technically the 2010 election would have returned a Tory majority without Scottish seats, I have yet to receive a meaningful answer to the question “and exactly how have the Lib Dems had a positive influence during the coalition?”.

In the UK under first-past-the-post, there are only a relative handful of “swing seats” that ever determine if there is a change in Government. Consider the 2010 election: MPs returned in Scotland were identical to that in the 2005 election, yet the UK Government changed. There are large parts of England where the same applies – the South East of England “swing seats” had the only influence that matters for Westminster.

The problem with Westminster in this case is the first-past-the-post voting system. Don’t like the Government’s policies? Vote for someone else – sure – but unless the “swing seats” also vote with you, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. Oh and by the way, all the main parties are now exclusively trying to appeal to the voters living in the swing seats, so you know that “alternative” that you were planning to vote for? Yeah, they’re now promising to do exactly the same as the current Government, only more so. Meanwhile, the Government in power can do whatever the hell they want because they know how difficult it will be to vote them out – and even if they are voted out, they know they’ll probably get another turn in power within 5 or 10 years, so there is no incentive to do what the people want, or what they pledged to do before the last election.

Proportional representation

The single biggest gain of independence is that we will have 100% control of our government elected via a system of proportional representation. I’ve already written about how unlikely a majority government, such as the present SNP Government, is. But in the context of this article, how easy is it to change governments you don’t like?

The Scottish Parliament is elected using a Mixed Member Proportional Representation method. There are 73 Constituencies in Scotland, each individually served by an MSP elected by first-past-the-post in that Constituency.

There are also 56 additional MSPs elected by the Regional List. The 73 Constituencies are grouped into 8 Regions of Scotland (Glasgow, West Scotland, Central Scotland, Mid Scotland and Fife, Highlands and Islands, North East Scotland, South of Scotland, and Lothian). Voters receive a second ballot paper listing political parties standing on the regional list. The list seats are allocated by the D’Hondt system which proportionately decides how many “extra” seats each party gets based on the number of Constituency seats already won in that Region – this normally ensures that out of the total 129 MSPs, the percentage of seats won by each party is roughly equal to the percentage of votes they receive on the Regional List.

I said “normally” in the previous sentence because the present Scottish Government has 51% of the seats but only 44% of the votes. This is an anomaly in the system. How was this possible?

Digging into the numbers, we see that the only way for one party to win a majority is for them to gather overwhelming support in all 8 Regions of the Regional List vote. For example, the SNP gained 5 out of 8 Constituency seats in Glasgow in 2011, but they also gained enough votes on the Regional List (40%) to win another 2 Regional seats, making their total for Glasgow 7 out of 15 seats. Meanwhile, in the North East Region, the SNP gained 10 out of 10 Constituency seats, but their Regional List vote was so high (53%) that they ended up winning an additional List seat, for a total of 11 out of 17 seats for the Region. 

Examining the data for all 8 Regions, even a few percent drop in SNP Regional List vote in just ONE Region would result in the List seats rightly going to other parties, to ensure proportionality. This would result in the SNP being unable to form a majority Government, as they have at the moment. 

So what happens if we don’t like even an anomalous majority Scottish Government? A few percent drop in Regional List vote will remove power from them and spread it to other parties in the Parliament. A pluralist democracy such as this is a very healthy thing, and is normal for nearly all comparable countries. With independence we will absolutely get the government we vote for, every time. And if they make a mess of it, we can absolutely and easily get them booted out and replaced with someone more competent. That is a heck of a motivation for any Government elected to do a good job in the first place and to deliver on their promises.