Monday, April 01, 2013

Basic Certificate in UK citizenship

Ordinary level

Paper 2: Political Interpretation

The deputy first minister of Scotland recently said that for each of the last 30 years tax receipts per head of population in Scotland have been greater than tax receipts per head of population in the UK. 

Q1 (10% of marks). What is the UK? 
 It consists of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (in order of population). Each, apart from England, which has nearly 84% of the UK population, has independent control over some aspects of its own affairs. This is called devolution. Despite this the electorate per Westminster parliamentary seat is more in England than in either Scotland or Wales.Thus both these components of the UK are over-represented at Westminster while being able to influence matters that affect only England and are none of their business.

Q2 (20% of marks). Is her arithmetic valid?
Without access to her sources and assumptions it is impossible to say. It is a fair bet that she has included a large amount for oil and gas revenues, though the boundary between 'Scotland's oil' and England's is far from universally agreed. We can be sure of this because firstly the SNP considers it to be Scotland's oil, and therefore Scotland's tax revenue, and secondly because without this revenue the figures, on the Scottish government's own admission, are hardly convincing. Scotland has 8.4% of the UK population and the figures produced by GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) show non-North Sea revenue as 8.3% of the UK total, coupled with the plain, and commendably honest, statement that the vast majority of revenue is collected at the UK level and 'generally it is not possible to identify separately the proportion of that revenue receivable from Scotland.' One suspects also that a large majority of the costs of collection and redistribution are borne outside Scotland.

Q3 (20% of marks). How will her remarks be interpreted?
A.  The key point is the comparison between Scotland and the UK; not 'the UK as a whole' but the briefest possible definition, plain UK. Ms Sturgeon (she's married, but not to Mr Sturgeon) wanted to imply a comparison with England, the association the SNP wants to dissolve. She was not claiming that Scotland pays more tax per head than England, though many of her listeners would hear that and be happy to believe it. Had there been credible evidence that Scots pay more tax than the English she would undoubtedly have said so. It is the Westminster parliament, the one that has the unenviable job, perversely, of governing the UK in the interests of the whole UK, that is to be presented as a block on independence. For Westminster, in the SNP mentality, read England. Ergo Scotland is doing more than England to finance the Union and would be better off on its own. Therefore Scots should vote yes in the referendum next year.

Q4 (50% of marks).What is it really all about then?
A. Perhaps surprisingly, it really is about finally settling the devolution question, one of half a dozen or so great loose ends left unfinished or funked entirely by the Labour government (see also House of Lords reform, public service pensions, security of the electricity supply, capping NHS costs . . .). The UK has two more or less viable economies, England and Scotland, one marginal one in Wales and a basket case in Northern Ireland that is bailed out by mostly the first two. A point not made by the SNP, but no doubt of concern to the UK government, is that without Scotland England would have to support Northern Ireland to a greater extent than it does now; there is no way, other obvious considerations apart, that Dublin would take on that burden on top of its present problems. Since one could hardly deny that at least some of the North Sea oil is in Scottish waters and the accompanying revenue would have to go to Scotland, the Scottish case for financial viability may well be sound and is certainly not spurious.

The trouble with devolution is that it has left the UK prime minister with a dilemma: he has to take decisions on things like foreign policy and defence from a UK point of view, but on devolved matters he must act in the interests of England or of some combination of two or more of the four countries of the union, since what has been devolved varies. A Labour prime minister will also want to hang on to the 41 Westminster MPs from Scotland and the 26 from Wales, without which he might not have a Commons majority with which to impose legislation on England. A Conservative prime minister on the other hand might well be very glad to be rid of the 41, or 67, together with the current 17/23 LibDems and nationalists who, whether outside pissing in or inside pissing out, are hampering his efforts at the moment.

At some point this undemocratic mess must be resolved. If it is reasonable for the Scots to decide their own future, as has been accepted, then why should not the Welsh, or the Northern Irish? If these two don't want independence, or don't want to ask the question, as the Scottish parliament did not until the SNP won a majority, then why should the English continue to have their affairs influenced, in some cases decided, by MPs from other countries? If Scotland votes yes it will break away and the whole Westminster scene will be radically changed. Pressure for a similar deal for Wales will increase while perversely there will be no such move from Northern Ireland, probably the one part of the UK any prime minister would be glad to be rid of.

If Scotland votes no it is naive to assume the status quo would be resumed. It would mean only that Mr Salmond has tried to move too fast. The question would come up again. Further powers would be devolved to try to slow the process and for every concession granted the unfairness of the present arrangement would increase and become plainer. Eventually even the English, Chesterton's Secret People, will have had enough but I doubt I will live to see it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Nil carborundum

I can hardly be alone in finding the automated voice response you get these days from just about any organisation you call as one of the major blood pressure provokers of modern living. When they remind me that the call will be recorded 'for your protection and ours' (who do they think they are kidding?) I just hope the recording starts during the sorry to keep you waiting phase and that they sometimes listen to it afterwards. It's the only chance you get to say what you really think.

Worse even than the 'press one for sales and two for service' type (always ask for sales then sweetly ask to be put through to the right department to save you calling again) are the ones that work on the assumption they can interpret your voice and ask for specific information. They have one of these in a car park in Worcester to rescue those who don't bring enough coins with them. This is on top of the tactic of charging £1.20 an hour, refusing to give change and making you declare your registration number so that you can't pass your remaining time to someone else if you leave early. For those with only paper money they offer the 'quick and easy' option to use your mobile and pay by credit card, with a 20p fine on top of the call charge and parking fee. 

The first few questions were easy: registration, make, colour (of vehicle) and number of hours required. Then the cedit card details, sixteen digits to key in with my phone in one hand, card in the other and glasses in my pocket. By this time a couple had turned up were trying their own luck with the coins. They were also listening in some wonder to my efforts to argue with the automatic voice for I have an obtuse objection to one-sided conversations.

'That number was not accepted. Please try again.'
'I'm paying for this call. How much more of my time are you going to waste?' 
I tried a different card. 'That number is not valid. It did not have enough digits.'
'Of course it didn't you stupid man. I haven't finished entering them yet'. Then I was cut off.

Thinking it was a good thing the voice really was a man's, or I would have been bundled off to the nick on some sex offence charge, I looked around for a Civil Enforcement Officer. This is what they call parking wardens in Worcester these days and of course they are only there when you get back to your car two minutes past the time your ticket expired. Such was the case. In desperation I asked (very politely) the woman who had involuntarily overheard my rant, and who seemed unoffended by it, if she could change a fiver for five ones. Unlike most women in my experience she had other than notes in her purse and equally politely obliged. She is probably dining out on it now.

Editing the editor

A fine row is brewing over Gerald Scarfe's cartoon in the latest Sunday Times

The offending drawing depicts the Israeli prime minister cementing what appear to be Palestinains into a wall with the caption 'will cementing peace continue?'. Arms, legs and heads protrude from between the bricks and Mr Netanyahu wields a blood-stained trowel. It's pretty typical Scarfe: a brutal caricature with a message that could easily be understood by a 12 year old, particularly one who knew that Israel had a general election just a few days earlier, which might have come up in his school current affairs lesson, and that Sunday was also Holocaust Memorial day, which might well have come up in his school current affairs lesson. 

A variety of Jewish bodies duly objected and the Sunday Times was reported to the Press Complaints Commission. That much was to be expected. The next step in the story was extraordinary. Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corporation, owner of the Times and Sunday Times, twittered that 'Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times . . we owe [a] major apology for [the] grotesque, offensive cartoon'. Later the paper's editor (a new appointment, this was the poor man's first edition in charge), who before Murdoch's intervention had put out a standard defence of the cartoon as fair journalism of the type we should expect from Scarfe and that it was aimed at Netanyahu and the Israeli government rather than the Jewish people, was obliged to apologise profusely to the Jewish lobby and even Scarfe himself apologised for the timing, saying he was unaware that last Sunday was Holocaust memorial day. I confess I had assumed the timing was deliberate. Maybe Israel should not hold its election just before such a meaningful event.

So where now stand the editors of the various organs of the Murdoch press? Murdoch told the Leveson enquiry that he does not interfere in the editorial content of his papers. If so his tweet was hardly a vote of confidence in their judgement. Which will now dare risk the wrath of a man who has a long history of strongly supporting Israel and who is much praised by the Jewish press for his fairness in dealing with its affairs? 

More importantly, where now stands British journalism? Scarfe is well known for his blunt, if rather repetitive, views on war and its consequences and has not varied his approach in years. A political cartoonist is surely employed to raise such concerns, to go against the grain of the paper and of public opinion where he feels it appropriate and absolutely not to kowtow to anyone's sensitivities. His work reflects his own opinion first and anyone else's by coincidence and I find it extraordinary that a newspaper proprietor should think it useful, necessary or pertinent to point this out, or to apologise for a cartoon that, crude and unoriginal though it might have been, was not, as a few have claimed, anti-semitic.

Happily there are two shafts of light in the debate. The Independent is running an online poll asking if its readers think Mr Murdoch should have apologised. When I contributed it was running at 83% No votes. Second, an Israeli journalist, Anshel Pfeffer, has said that the cartoon was 'not anti-semitic by any standard' and that 'Netanyahu's depiction is grossly offensive and unfair, but that is only par for the course for any politician when Scarfe is at his drawing-board'. At least someone understands the basics.