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My worries about independence [Sep. 7th, 2014|10:51 am]
The independence referendum is 11 days away and I can't ignore it any longer.  By "ignore it", I really mean abstract myself from it and treat it as an intellectual curiosity.  It is now imminent and real and I have to face my reactions to the prospect.  I am quite worried by the potential consquences of a "yes" vote, which is looking more and more likely.

Basically, my worries haven't changed since the start of the campaign a year ago.  Scotland as part of the UK is currently a rich country.  Perturbing that relationship brings significant uncertainty into the economic future.  The independence campaigners insist that companies will not move their operations but this seems a real risk to me.  I'm reminded of the negotiations last year over the future of the Grangemouth refinery: the unions only realised at the last minute that, yes, Ineos really were prepared to close the whole refinery if they didn't get their way. Grangemouth was far more important to Scotland than it was to the international economy.  Grangemouth is a huge industrial complex which is expensive to recreate elsewhere; it would be much easier to move office jobs (such as the finance sector) south of the border if companies decided to do so.

My employer does particularly well out of the union.  We host the UK's national academic supercomputer and have a thriving business in high-performance computing on the expertise generated by that.  We host a substantial part of the UK's academic data centre.  We have a higher percentage of UK funding than Scotland's size relative to the UK.  We also receive substantial EU funding.  We can charge English students large fees. As far as I can see, all of that is at risk from independence.  On the social media boards, many independence campaigners have responded by saying that "research funding is international and will go to the best institutions", which shows complete ignorance of how research is actually funded. The SNP have promised to match lost research funding if they are returned to power, but that is as trustworthy as any promise from a political party looking to win an election.  In any case, if the economy takes a turn for the worse, cuts will have to be made somewhere, and I doubt that a Scottish government would prioritise research funding over health, care for the elderly, etc.

(My employer remains stauchly neutral in the debate so I should restate that these are my personal opinions and do not represent offical policy.  Other employees, including friends of mine, have different views).

On the particular issue of the EU, there is a risk that if Scotland remains in the UK, the UK will leave the EU anyway, taking Scotland with it.  I'd rather deal with that if and when it happens.  (If it did happen, I'd want the Scottish Government to start negotiations with the EU about the potential of joining as an independent state; I think other EU members would be more interested in this option in a situation where the UK had already voted to leave than in the current scenario where we are seen as a "region" looking to secede from an EU country).

To some extent, the above is a selfish view, looking at the risks that independence poses to me and mine.  But the economy is fundamental to the succes of the independence project.  Some people are voting for independence in part because they don't agree with the austerity measures imposed by the Westminster government.  The assumption is that an independent Scotland would be able to choose a better approach.  But if the economy worsens, the austerity will worsen too, and it will make no difference that it is a home-grown austerity.

I acknowledge that there are potential benefits to independence too.  I like the possibility of sending Trident down to Devon, even though I'm sceptical that it would ever happen.  If an independent Scotland joined the EU, we would probably have better representation there.  Economic decisions made locally may make small improvements.  A new constitution would (probably) be much better than the UK one.  But none of this allays my fundamental worries about the economy.

I hope that my friends reading this will credit me the ability to come up with these worries, risks and doubts on my own.  I didn't need the help of the (woeful) Better Together campaign to formulate these concerns.  And I have seen little from the Yes Scotland campaign to allay these fears.  Most of what the independence campaigners have produced regarding the economy could most kindly be described in project management terms as "optimism bias" - the assumption that things will turn out according to the plan.  In my experience, that rarely happens.
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"Arguing for Independence" [Apr. 27th, 2014|11:37 am]
Having read a sceptical book on Independence, it seemed only fair to try one that argues the case for change.  Arguing For Independence was written by the vice-chair of the SNP, Stephen Maxwell.  He sets out six cases for independence: Democratic, Economic, Social, International, Cultural and Environmental.  These are preceded by a good chapter on "Ways of Arguing" and followed by an FAQ-style wrap-up titled "Aye, but...".

Although the first two cases are well argued, I was surprised how weak the later chapters were.  The democratic case is quite strong and includes some items I hadn't really considered before, such as removing Scotland from anomalies such as the House of Lords  and moving us towards a written constitution.  I'd argue that a draft constitution should have been written before the referendum, as it was for devolution, but politically that may have been impossible.

The economic case is the longest chapter, as it should be.  Maxwell is quite open that there are risks, of the kind that worry me and that are outlined in Scotland's Choices.  His take is that these are short-term risks and have to be balanced against the long-term risks of an economy directed by and for the benefit of the South-East of England, which is an interesting angle to take.   He acknowledges that the currency question is uncertain.

Maxwell also outlines the history of other small North European countries and asks whether they would have been as successful if they had not gained their independence.  To which my response is that it would all depend on the success of the larger union involved.  If Denmark were part of Germany, it would probably be fine, whereas if Finland had remained part of Russia/the USSR it would probably have suffered.  Maxwell rather skips over Ireland and Iceland: those countries who were once the icons of the pro-independence movement, acknowledging briefly that there are risks as well as potential benefits to independence.

I was expecting a strong argument in favour of the social case but this short chapter boils down to saying that the economic benefits would allow better social support.  This is the flip side of my own concern, that the social benefits desired by several of my friends would be threatened if Scotland's economy does worse after independence: we could simply swap a Westminster-imposed austerity for one imposed from Holyrood.  The cultural and environmental cases were similarly weak.

The international case was particularly troubling to me.  Maxwell seemed to veer pretty close to the UKIP point of view (except on the important issue of immigration), in that he would be happy to consider leaving various international groups such as the EU, if they don't accede to the demands of an independent Scotland.  In this, he shares the underlying trend of nationalists everywhere, whatever they claim about being open to the rest of the world, I suspect that at heart they would not be concerned it more barriers existed between different countries.  In addition, Maxwell's arguments were full of the wishful thinking that characterises this aspect of the pro-independence movement; they seem to think that other countries will take the positions that match their personal hopes, with no actual evidence.   I remain highly sceptical; other countries will pursue realpolitik for their own ends, not for the goals of an independent Scotland.

Maxwell was particularly motivated by his anti-nuclear views: the removal not just of the Trident fleet but also of anything else that uses nuclear power, including power stations and ordinary submarines.  He was remarkably naive about the chances of this happening.  He argued that Scotland could become a non-nuclear member of NATO, analogous to Denmark, without acknowleding the key difference that Scotland, unlike Denmark, has the ideal base for NATO's nuclear weapons; NATO is unlikely to abandon this facility.   Recently, we have also see the pro-independence campaign jump at the suggestion that an independent Scotland could be admitted to a Sterling currency union in return for continuing to base the Trident fleet.  As with other examples, an independent Scotland would have less autonomy than its advocates are hoping for.

Overall, it was interesting to read arguments in favour of independence.  Maxwell takes a reasonably balanced view, acknowledging some of the risks and examining how arguments can be made in the face of uncertainty.  Some of his points in favour of independence were sound and well-made, particularly regarding the democratic case.  I appreciated the challenge to my scepticism from his arguments regarding the economy.  On the other hand, I was disappointed at the weakness of the remaining cases.
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"Scotland's Choices" [Feb. 2nd, 2014|11:36 am]
So, at our book club yesterday we discussed Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and what happens afterwards.   This revealed a range of opinions on the independence question in our group, from “I’m British, not Scots, and I don’t want to split my country”, to “I want a country that isn’t chasing the USA model and independence seems the best way to attain this”.  One person wasn’t born in the UK and wondered whether they should vote at all.

The book looks at the question from a practical, administrative, viewpoint.  It considers matters such as how much control the Scottish government has and will have over various aspects of its finances, how welfare in Scotland relates to that in the UK as a whole, and how an independent Scotland will relate to various international bodies such as the EU and NATO.  It devotes a chapter to the impact of North Sea oil, the options that were missed (the Thatcher government could have set up a sovereign wealth fund but chose to spend the tax income on balancing the budget instead), and the choices that would face an independent Scotland as the income from oil reduces.

As well as independence, the book considers options for further devolution, starting with the implications of the 2012 Scotland Act, which will come into force in 2016 (if independence doesn’t make it redundant).  This gives useful context, for example comparing scenarios with more devolution “devo-plus” or “devo-max” against the most likely form of independence, constrained by a currency union with either the UK or the EU.  I wasn’t aware of the 2012 act and its implications, so this part of the book was particularly interesting.

As our discussion pointed out, the book doesn’t address broader concerns such as, what sort of society do we want?  Would we rather live in a more equal society even if the overall GDP per capita was less?  Are there benefits from having our political leaders closer to home where we can influence them and oversee them more directly, compared to a remote leadership in London?  Would an independent Scotland encourage our “best and brightest” to stay in Scotland rather than head to the major world city of London just 350 miles south?

Away from the main issues, the authors also spend some time discussing the various options for managing referendums, which seems a bit redundant given that the terms of the referendum are now set.  A review of voting methods was probably of no interest to many readers, while those of us who are interested in that topic were already familiar with the issues.  A chapter on the history of unions and independence movements in the UK was more interesting, especially concerning the history of Irish “home rule”, which I knew little about.

For me, the book reinforced my existing concerns about the independence “offer”.  The big question for me is what extra powers, will independence give us, compared to devolution, to allow Scotland to generate a more dynamic and still more successful economy?  The authors didn’t address this – perhaps because at the time they wrote it, the Yes campaign had not presented its case.  We did note that since the book was published, two of the authors have joined the “no” campaign, which seems unsurprising given the material presented in the book.  I’m not accusing them of setting out to write a biased book – it’s far more informative than most of the media chatter – but their analysis is consistent with a “no” conclusion and other analysts might reach different conclusions.
 
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FiL [Jul. 7th, 2013|10:17 pm]
[mood |irritatedirritated]

We witnessed a moment of insight today as FiL (who is visiting us) realised he might be a little deaf, because everyone else in the room heard what the man on the telly was saying.  When he can hear the TV clearly in our living room, we can hear it everywhere else in the flat.

It must be hard to recognise the symptoms when you live on your own, as you can just turn the telly up a little louder and no one complains. 
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Tenerife [May. 5th, 2013|10:45 am]
We went to Tenerife for Easter and I haven't had time to write about it until now. So, some memories below the cut.

Holiday ramblingsCollapse )

In many ways this was an ideal time of year for our holiday.  In particular, the weather was warm but not too hot.  It's a shame that M will be revising for exams this time next year (and the year after, and the year after that...)
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Let's join up the inner-tube map! [Mar. 10th, 2013|11:01 am]
[mood |optimisticoptimistic]

This is my response to Edinburgh council's survey on its local transport strategy:

The plan should do more to provide specific facilities for cycling, particularly for those people who are perhaps too nervous to cycle on busy roads.  The "issues" document says very little about cycling per se, except as an adjunct to other policies.  For example, it posits that cyclists will benefit from lower speed limits on cars but this is not the same as providing specific support for cycling.

Compare Boris Johnson's recent announcement for a network of cycle routes in London with the unconnected, patchwork, nature of current cycle routes in Edinburgh.

I would like to see the council "join up the inner tube map", for example by designating certain quiet residential streets as "cyclist priority routes".  These streets would be "access-only" for motor vehicles (i.e. for the people who live on the street) but through routes for cyclists.  They would have good quality surfaces (no cobbles or potholes!) and would form a network of routes around the city that even children could use.  They might be supplemented by light-controlled crossings where the routes cross busier roads.

An initiative along these lines could really make cycling in the city far more attractive.
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Merlin, series five [Jan. 2nd, 2013|12:53 pm]
The BBC's retelling of the King Arthur legend has now come to a close with the end of the fifth series.  Our family thought the story arc of this final series could have been better.

Spoilers under the cut...Collapse )
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Family xmas 2012 [Dec. 29th, 2012|10:35 pm]
My eldest brother clearly suffers from living-near-the-aged-parents syndrome.  Largely  because of this, my sister stayed with him in the week before xmas, then our family stayed over xmas itself.
Some more details, mainly FMORCollapse )
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End of the height wars [Dec. 20th, 2012|10:20 pm]
[mood |amusedamused]

Last year, I reported that M was the same height as Mrs HTC.  One year on, M has reached 5'6" (or 167cm in new money), which is a clear lead, much to the chagrin of the short member of the household.
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52,150 words [Nov. 30th, 2012|09:42 pm]
I'm rather impressed by M managing to write a 52,150 word novel over the last 30 days.  I've never managed any writing on that scale.

(Inter)National Novel Writing Month
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