Category Archives: Scotland

Referendums and democracy – again.

Ian Holman (@yarmouthian) and I had a Twitter exchange the other day which I want to use to introduce this blog which will be about referendums and could well take us nowhere. It started with a comment from him that caught my eye.

IH: Seriously hope UKIP’s disgraceful poster campaign backfires. Blatantly pandering to the ignorant and uneducated.

RW: @yarmouthian Are you surprised?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Sadly not.

RW: @yarmouthian If we could have a quick referendum, it would remove the point of UKIP and that would be good. Yes?

IH: @Rodney_Willett My preference is not to have one but I agree it would kill off UKIP

RW: @yarmouthian What’s wrong with having one?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Gives the largely uneducated public a vote on a single issue which they don’t fully understand

RW: @yarmouthian It’s the same public that votes for our MP’s. Some thoughts here (this was a link to my blog) and I would welcome your views on that

IH: @Rodney_Willett Interesting piece and a referendum would resolve the issue either way, I agree. My fear of a referendum is that many will vote no for the wrong reasons, i.e. not on economic grounds but because they ‘don’t like foreigners’.

RW: @yarmouthian Yes, that is a problem but how much do we value democracy?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Interesting debate. If there was referendum on death penalty, for example, vote may be in favour. Democratic but a result of lack of understanding of rule of law etc. Again a reason for not liking votes on single issues.

RW: @yarmouthian Yes, I have blogged about that problem too. It was tight but the right result in the end. But if not the people then who?

IH: @Rodney_Willett Point taken & tricky to argue against. Prefer to avoid referendums & allow govt., elected on manifesto, to make decisions.

The problem is, I feel, that we are both right. Yes, the people should be able to take major decisions about the way they are governed. Yes, the people cannot be expected to be sufficiently well informed to be trusted with taking major decisions about the way they are governed. It really is impossible to object to either sentence so where does that leave us?

When Ian says that he prefers to allow a government elected on a manifesto to make decisions, he is making the assumption that all matters of importance can be included in a manifesto. That was pretty much the case as the nineteenth century morphed into the twentieth. Then government was involved in far fewer areas of life than it is today and the divisions between the parties were fairly clear cut – for or against free trade, for or against the concept of workers’ unions and so on.

The Whigs, the Tories and the newcomers on the scene, the nascent Labour party all knew why they existed, what they were fighting for and for whom. By today’s standards, some of the things that were being fought for were unacceptable (the Tories), radical but on an intellectual rather than an emotional level (Whigs or Liberals if you prefer) and totally justified if fuelled by righteous anger which could be destructive (Labour).

So, if you voted for a politician you knew what he (no she’s then) stood for and the tribe he represented. You get a good feel of that if you read Ken Follett’s brilliant novel, “Fall of Giants” which deals with the period leading up the Great War and the tensions between the classes at that time.

Nowadays it is far more complicated as government has become more and more involved in the micro-management of the country (a move I deplore but that is another matter). One party wants to reduce the top rate of income tax, another to raise the income tax threshold. One party wants to restructure the NHS and another to provide it with more resources (although failing to explain exactly from where they are to come). Frankly, manifestos have become more a list of aspirations than of carefully costed and thoroughly researched proposals for action.

Meanwhile, since all of the manifestos will contain things that everyone likes, things that everyone dislikes and more things that most people do not care about it becomes impossible to decide which party would be best for the country (or even for each individual voter). That’s a sweeping statement but is probably realistic. To make matters worse, very few people believe that the politicians have any real intention of taking note of what they said in their manifestos and very few people realise that changing circumstances can render certain manifesto promises unachievable. One things of Clegg and tuition fees and Macmillan saying, feelingly, “Events, dear boy, events”.

Then there are matters – the EU is a perfect example – where the divisions in opinion do not follow party lines. So these matters never appear in a manifesto and the people have no opportunity to express an opinion.

In the end, elections are fought on other grounds: the likeability of the leaders, how they come over on the telly, the record of the last government (or, to be more accurate, the perception regarding the record of the last government) and, even though outdated and probably foolish, old tribal loyalties.

When canvassing I would often be told, “Well, my father/mother always voted Conservative/Liberal/Labour so . . .” Such people rarely said LibDems, their parents being too old to have taken that merger to heart.

Even more depressing was, “Oh, I shan’t be voting, they’re all as bad as one another,” or words to that effect.

So, just how should we look to decide on the two most important issues facing us today – the make-up of the UK and its relationship with the EU?

Next time I will try to tackle that question. Meanwhile if you have any ideas, I would be delighted to hear from you (whether by comment here, email to or on Twitter).

Together or apart?

More on Scottish independence.

Before I start, many thanks to all of you who left a comment or sent me an email following my last blog – all of which seemed well argued and reasonable even when coming to different conclusions. I have, I hope, taken on board what you are saying. This whole business is highly complicated and so I ask you to bear with me while I try to deconstruct it. This will, I fear, be over long and rather rambling. I have tried to avoid those pitfalls but there are so many strands to consider that I feel I have plunged into both.

In the beginning was a small group of people struggling to keep alive. They discovered that working together gave them a better chance of survival and so they formed a tribe. The problem was, of course, that the tribe was soon being run by the most powerful (but we’ll come back to in what way powerful) people and the others, generally speaking, had to do as they were told. However, it was a small group so the leader could hear what everyone had to say before taking a decision so one of the problems that we face today (the yawning gulf between the ruled and the rulers) did not exist. Even so, Alpha took the decisions and Omega had no choice but to go with it (despite feeling bitter that his ideas were – at least in his opinion – far superior) or get out and go it alone which he knew was not going to work.

Then circumstances dictated that the tribe was at risk and so were the neighbouring tribes. Although they didn’t care much for each other they did see that coming together and facing the problems with the increased resources this gave them was the only way forward at the time. So a federation of tribes was formed and the leaders of the various tribes formed a council to run the federation – until they hit a real crisis and could not agree on the right thing to do. At this point the Alpha of that council took control and, for a while, ruled supreme.

Then, of course, he overdid things and was assassinated by a group of other leaders who replaced him by the council until . . . Well, you get the idea.

The problem with grouping together is that it may have been the only option at one time but that life has moved on and whatever threat it was that brought everyone together no longer existed and so some of the tribal leaders began to object to being ruled by the federation and decided to withdraw from it. Until of course, another threat came along and then . . . Well, you get the idea.

What really started to put the cat among the pigeons was an idea that was first thought of in ancient Greece – an idea that we call democracy. Of course, it wasn’t anything like the democracy we enjoy – for a start it applied only to citizens of a small part of Greece with Athens at its centre and excluded the bulk of the population who were not citizens (many, indeed, being slaves). Nevertheless it was the start of something that we, generally speaking, consider to be a good thing (even when it fails to deliver what we want it to).

Then came bureaucracy. This was probably started by the Romans and it creates a system that makes it terribly difficult to change course quickly unless, as in those days, change is engendered by assassination and the fear of bloodshed. Actually, that still happens although we seem to have been able to avoid it here in the UK since the restoration.

The point I want to make is that the UK became the UK because at a certain point in the past it was to the advantage of enough people for it to be possible for groups (or nations if you prefer) to come together for a valid reason at that time (although this often included coercion because not all were in agreement with the links that were forged). You could say the same thing about the old ECC (I take the point made by Ronald). Then things change and the people running things change until the disadvantages associated with grouping together begin to outweigh the advantages – for at least a significant minority of the people: a big enough minority to make their voices heard.

In my view, that position has been reached in the EU and, I suspect, in the relationship between Westminster and the outlying parts of the UK. It feels so to me, at a mere two hundred and sixty-four miles from the seat of government: what it must feel like further away north of the border I can only imagine even though Scotland has a remarkable degree of self-determination (far more than the people of Devon) and could, I have no doubt, have more if it so desired. But . . .

Why is Scotland a part of the UK? The relationship between England and Scotland has been a difficult one. Although individual people from both sides of the border have forged great friendships, at a governmental level there have always been stresses. Finally (whether the Scots like it or not) they joined England in order to remain viable having lost most of their wealth in an unhappy investment. Now there is a real possibility that they would prefer to go it alone and I have no problems with that so long as the decisions are taken with the full facts available and the whole thing is done honestly and openly.

There are a number of reasons why that is probably a pious hope. Listening to Alan Bissett on the sound track of the video put up by Steve alerted me to one thing that is being bandied about and is neither honest or open: the accusation that Scotland is being governed by as elite.

All governments create an elite. It happens. There is an elite in every trades union, in every political party (including the SNP) and in every other grouping known to man. It happens because some people make better leaders than others and so form a new elite. To pretend otherwise is wrong.

I really do think that the people of Scotland deserve better than they are getting. They deserve to know where independence would take them in this democratic and bureaucratic world and they deserve an unemotional consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of togetherness and separation rather than the emotional appeals that seem to be the main thrust of those wishing for independence.

Next time I want to try and see how the proposed referendum stands up as a democratic exercise.

The referendum for an independent Scotland

As have many people, I have been involved in the comment pages of the Times over the little matter of the referendum to determine or otherwise Scottish independence and the more views I read the more I worry about this referendum.

First let me declare my areas of interest (as should anyone commenting on or actively working within politics).

I approve of the concept of referendums to determine matters that cannot be resolved using representative democratic means. Indeed, I would like to see more of them (but not too many) at all levels of government from Westminster to the parish and town councils. So it is not the referendum per se that worries me.

I approve of decentralisation (as anyone who has followed any of my writing will know) so it is not the thought of an independent Scotland that worries me. Indeed, if that is what the Scots want then good luck to them.

So why do I find myself profoundly worried about this particular referendum? I think the answer is that I think it carries with it some serious flaws which I fear means that whatever the outcome there will be considerable social damage. So what are these flaws?

First I am bothered about the people entitled to vote. These include a large number of people with no Scottish history who happen to be living there at the “right time”. It is possible, in the event of a close result, for the independence of Scotland to be determined by a group of workers from (let us say) Poland who have no intention of remaining there for more than a few years. That worries me.

Second I am bothered about the people who are not entitled top vote. These are those with strong Scottish roots – even maybe with family in Scotland – who happen to be working elsewhere but who will have no say in the future of what they see as their country.

Thirdly I am bothered that the Scots are being offered a pig in a poke and nobody seems able to let the cat out of the bag. (No, that is not mixing metaphors as they are connected: the ‘pig’ was often a stray cat.) By that I mean that it is, I feel, totally wrong to vote first and negotiate afterwards. I see the problems of negotiating first but without knowing exactly where an independent Scotland would stand within the world, surely it is not possible to take a logical decision?

Do they not need to know what currency will prevail and who will be the lender of last resort if that currency is in difficulties? Do they not need to know whether or not they will be member of the EU or NATO? Do they not need to know what level of national debt they will be carrying?

Those are the big questions but there are plenty of others. All, however, are swept under the carpet. The response to the inevitable rejection by the Treasury and the three major parties in the UK that Scotland could not be a part of the pound Sterling was met by extraordinary responses – such as the claim that the English wanted to bully poor little Scotland into staying in the union.

Well, speaking as one of those English, I would be happy for Scotland to go her own way if that is what she wants but I’m damned if I want to trust her with the pound in my pocket and I really do not want her to do something that, after the negotiations have been concluded, they bitterly regret. Who would they blame? Their leaders? The leaders of rUK or the EU or NATO? Someone would be expected to take the blame.

Lastly I am worried by the passions that have been stirred up. The campaign in Scotland seems to be based more on hate than logic and I feel a backlash down here with more anti-Scots feelings than I have noticed in the past – ever. That cannot be good.