Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Saying “Thanks” and Following Up

     It has been a week since the post on Bastardized Federalism was published on this blog, and I must confess to being deeply amazed and humbled by the response to it so far.

     There have been just over 820 views as of Tuesday morning on June 23rd, which is quite astonishing considering that the second-most viewed post (on the need to save the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2) currently has 395 views, and has been available since June 7th.

     However, this is where another aspect of this post must be mentioned, and that is the role of social media, and I must thank everyone who shared, liked, tweeted and retweeted the post on Facebook and Twitter.

     It was on Twitter that Kevin Hague (@kevverage), the writer of chokka blog (which has been doing its bit to refute the economic claims of the SNP and pro-independence supporters) read the post, and with his following, got the ball rolling on getting it shared and read by great numbers of people. Many other individuals – some of whom I consider very good friends – also tweeted, retweeted, and shared the post around in the course of the last week, and along with this were mostly positive and supportive comments for which I am extremely grateful.

     Such comments came from people who are frustrated by the SNP and its supporters in the media who attempt to the peddle the notion that a fully fiscally autonomous Scotland could still benefit from fiscal transfers as part of the United Kingdom, in order to cover for the fiscal gaps that would in all likelihood be caused with the implementation of full fiscal autonomy (FFA).

     This is part of an problem for the SNP & Co., which has attempted to find ways to answer the difficult questions regarding FFA, as journalist and commentator David Torrance pointed out in the The Scotsman last week.

     First, they attempted to dismiss the fiscal gap of £7.6 billion and total deficit of £14 billion highlighted by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) by claiming that such figures represented merely a “snapshot” for one fiscal year. However, “there existed several such snapshots all the way up to 2020” which if anything, showed the figures getting worse.

     Then some members attempted to go another route where they did not deny the existence of the gap and deficit, or play them down. Instead, they spoke of how there would be a “fiscal framework” to accompany FFA – also known in more emollient terms as “Home Rule” – in which Scotland would still benefit from the pooling and sharing of resources within the UK, despite not having skin in the game (because after all, not a pound of Scottish tax revenue would go the the UK Treasury).

     In his column, Torrance points out that George Kerevan (a former executive and columnist with The Scotsman, and now the SNP MP for East Lothian) was “quite explicit” on this topic:

“For Scotland to accept fiscal autonomy without in-built UK-wide fiscal balancing”, he wrote, “would be tantamount to economic suicide.” All federal systems, added Kerevan, possessed “mechanisms for cross-subsidising regions in economic need by regions in surplus”, thus to “deny” something similar (ie the Barnett Formula) to a fiscally autonomous Scotland would in his view “derail any move to Scottish Home Rule in the UK”.

     Like Iain Macwhirter in the Sunday Herald last week, Kerevan states something that comes off as entirely reasonable and has truth in it, but leaves out the critical detail that in federal systems, the constituent parts are not fully fiscally autonomous, and indeed as Torrance adds, none have claimed this constitutional/economic status within their respective federations. To do so would be an act of stupidity and irresponsibility, not only because it is not true, but more critically, because making such claims fatally undermines the existence, purpose, and meaning of the federation.

     Would the residents of New York, California, or Texas be content with their money going to programs and services in Mississippi, Kentucky, or West Virginia when those states claim full fiscal autonomy for themselves? No, and such a set-up would break the shared compact between the states that they agreed to when signing on to the Constitution of the United States, which provides Congress with broad powers of federal taxation that apply to the residents and businesses of all 50 states. Thus, the tax revenues that go to Washington come directly from the taxpayers throughout the Union, and is then spent throughout the Union.

     But of course, the principle aim for the SNP – their raison d’etere – remains breaking up the United Kingdom, and even though they may talk about doing what’s in the best interest of the whole UK whilst Scotland remains part of it, demanding FFA with continued mechanisms for fiscal transfers is a sure-fire way to stoke up the kind of resentment that will drive the rest of the UK to end the Union themselves – probably without a referendum.

     As I have said, this is probably what some Nationalists want since they could not achieve their ends through the referendum last year. They may complain about Unionists attempting to give Scotland rope to “hang itself” should FFA be delivered without “in-built UK-wide fiscal balancing” in the hope that it will force Scots to turn away from full independence. But arguing for these things seems an odd way extol the sentiments of solidarity – economic, political, and social – with the rest of UK, and indeed, if it leads to the break-up of the UK, then I suspect that some Nationalists will welcome it.

     However as Torrance said, making the case for fiscal transfers is a part of a series of intellectual contortions owing to the fact that the SNP cannot concede the disadvantages of FFA, for doing so “would also be accepting that independence (under which there would be no fiscal transfers) would leave Scotland worse off.”

     Even more confusingly, FFA is something that few on either side actually want, but it is something from which the SNP – some of whose fervent supporters (and even MP’s) believe was promised as part of The Vow (when it was not) – cannot afford to even appear to be climbing down. The party certainly cannot afford to admit that taxes would have to be raised substantially, lest it loses “Middle Scotland”, who according to David Torrance in The Herald, are the source of its “modern electoral support” with popular and easy policies such as the Council Tax freeze and “free” university tuition, which disproportionately benefit the middle classes, and which would almost inevitably come under pressure with the implementation of FFA.

     Thankfully, FFA was defeated in Parliament, but Scottish Finance Minister and Deputy First Minister John Swinney is once again attempting to “push” for this concept – with the SNP government in Holyrood even submitting to Downing Street the powers it believes ought to be devolved as a priority and with the aim of eventually attaining FFA. This is a variant of what the SNP MP’s were attempting to do last week with an amendment that would effectively allow Holyrood to choose what powers it wanted at a time when it is most convenient (i.e., when oil prices are higher), so as to not scare the horses, if you will.

     At the end of the day however, if the people of Scotland really want FFA, that’s totally within their prerogative, but not under a false prospectus which the SNP cannot deliver on – the premise that this is a form of federalism in which the rest of the United Kingdom will continue along with fiscal transfers to Scotland, even though Scotland’s residents would no longer directly contribute to the UK Treasury like everyone else throughout the United Kingdom.

     The SNP cannot have it both ways on FFA – its bastardized version of federalism – and actual federalism which retains features that bind a federation together, including a strong central government and federation-wide taxation. Either Scotland is fully fiscally autonomous or it’s not, and the SNP cannot have its cake and eat it too. They and their allies must be confronted on this point at every turn, and they cannot be allowed to get away with passing off FFA as federalism.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bastardized Federalism

     On Sunday, I was reading Iain Macwhirter’s latest column in the Sunday Herald, which was focused on the issue of Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA) for Scotland, and asserted that expressions of concern with regard to it amounted to scaremongering and demeaning Scotland, along with the notion that critics were being too negative about Scotland and its prospects. 

     Leaving to the side that there are genuine, valid, and serious concerns about FFA and that such critics are skeptical of the policy because its potential adverse effects on Scotland, what caught my attention was how Macwhirter described the proposed constitutional arrangement.

     What the SNP (claims it) wants – and what Macwhirter appears to be championing – is a system in which Scotland remains as part of the United Kingdom, but with every single pound in Scotland being subject only to taxation levied by the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, which means that the people of Scotland will no longer be directly contributing to the UK Treasury. Holyrood would send some form of payment to cover for shared services reserved to decisions at the UK level (defense and foreign affairs) and Scotland’s share of the UK national debt, but this is not the same as Scottish residents and business joining with their fellow British citizens in directly contributing to the maintenance of UK via taxation that applies to all British citizens, regardless of where they live.

     This means that Scotland will cut itself off from its financial links with the rest of the UK, and it will make Scotland independent in all but name (which some unionists describe as independence through the back door) but Macwhirter does not believe this to be the case because, as he claims, this is a “form of federalism, so even with fiscal autonomy there would be transfer payments to be negotiated as there are in all federal systems.”

     The esteemed columnist and journalist makes this sound reasonable because after all, Scotland would still be part of the United Kingdom and “sending a subvention south” for the aforementioned common services and debt payments. So Scotland should not be seen as contriving to have its cake and eat it too, and therefore, Macwhirter believes that Scotland should be entitled to “equalization payments.”

     However, in the eyes of people in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales, as well as many Scots, this does give the appearance of wanting to have the benefits of independence, but still wanting the financial backing of the rest of the UK. Worse, it adds fuel to the ugly perception that Scotland “sponges off” of taxpayers south of the Tweed. Under the current circumstances, Scotland and Scottish taxpayers – by being part of the same tax system as everyone else in the UK as a whole – contribute to the UK Treasury, as they have been doing for centuries, and as such, are entitled to UK spending – including the block grant via the Barnett Formula.

     But by essentially going it alone financially, the criticisms of Barnett and any other form of fiscal transfers to Scotland will become sharper and louder than ever before – just as would Scottish representation in the House of Commons would come under closer scrutiny.

     But what about that “subvention” as Macwhirter describes it? Wouldn’t it represent Scotland’s contribution to the UK’s coffers? Well, it appears that such a payment would only cover the aforementioned services still shared by Scotland and the rest of the UK, and therefore, money from the UK Treasury would only be spent in Scotland in relation to those services. If the “Scottish subvention” was strictly applied in such a way, it may mean that there would be little prospect of fiscal transfers directly to Holyrood, much less a fixed formula for an annual block grant.

     Macwhirter attempts to defend this and makes the argument for continued fiscal transfers on the basis that this is a “form of federalism.” After all, the UK appears to be on the road to federalism, and in federal systems, there are mechanisms for distributing wealth in order to provide assistance to states and to equalize the balance between wealthier regions and poorer ones.

     However, this does not make sense because under the SNP’s own proposals, Full Fiscal Autonomy means that every single pound of taxed money in Scotland goes directly to Holyrood, and none of it goes directly to the UK Treasury. Now, I admit that I’m not an expert on federalism or government systems in general, for those are topics that I study as a hobby – not a profession – and I also realize that federalism may mean many things to different people. But coming from a federation and having a basic understanding of major federal systems in other countries, I can say that Iain Macwhirter’s (and the SNP’s) vision of federalism goes out of sync with federalism as I understand it.

     In the United States, Germany, Australia, and Canada, taxation is a joint responsibility between the federal government and the federated (state/regional/provincial) governments, and the respective federal governments of those countries have the ability to levy and collect taxes throughout the entire federation. The federated governments within those countries have their own powers of taxation, which sometimes parallel those of the federal government, so that there may be federal and state taxes on income, corporate profits, consumption, and other sources of revenue. In some circumstances, there are taxes that can only be levied by the federal government, and taxes that can only be levied by the state governments.

     At the end of the day however, the federal systems I have mentioned still feature some form of taxation levied by the central (federal) government on all parts of the federation. The federated governments have fiscal autonomy, but not full fiscal autonomy, which is to say that those governments have the power to impose their own taxes on the residents and businesses within their jurisdiction for the needs and purposes of those areas. However, not every unit of taxable money goes to those governments because (as part of a wider federation), its residents and businesses are subject to some form of federal taxation, and so some of that taxable money goes to the federal government for needs and purposes across the entire federation (and this was already planned to be implemented under the Scotland Act 2012, and is to be greatly enhanced by the passage of another Scotland Act this year, which will give Holyrood full control over income tax rates in Scotland).

     Among those needs and purposes include the mechanism that the federal government uses to distribute money to specific parts of the country – i.e., fiscal transfers from the federal government to the state governments. Of the four federal countries mentioned here, Canada, Australia, and Germany have programs that are explicitly designed to equalize the fiscal capacities of the states/provinces within them, which invariably means making payments to less wealthy areas or areas that need assistance in covering the cost of providing public services.

     The United States does not have a fixed mechanism for achieving these ends, but some equalizing does occur when the federal government provides funds for specific programs within the states, such as education, food and nutrition, and health programs (like Medicaid). In addition, the federal government spends money to assist states in the financing of large capital projects, such as roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure. On average, the 50 states receive nearly half of their revenue from the taxes they levy on their residents (which ranges from North Dakota at 65.7% to New Mexico at 36.4%), and just under a third comes from the federal government (ranging from Mississippi at 42.9% to Alaska at 22.4%) through various programs and initiatives. The remainder comes from a mix of interest earnings, service charges, royalties, and local government transfers.

     So while the states are able to tap into their own tax base, they do not have exclusive access to it because they share their individual tax bases with that of whole United States, and this allows for money to be used to assist other states and the people that reside within them. While this does not amount to the same thing as the Barnett formula or the equalization payments found in other federations, it still amounts to a system into which everyone pays and from which everyone benefits.

     Regardless of how it’s done however, there is not a federal system I am aware of in which one part of the federation is not subject to some form of federal taxation (like everyone else) – where that part of the country effectively keeps all of the tax revenue raised within its borders, but then expects that the rest of the country will continue on happily with “equalization payments.” How is that possible when the taxpayers residing in that area are no longer directly contributing to the central government?

     It isn’t. What the nationalists and their supporters want with regard to FFA is not federalism – at least not the way I have come to understand it – and by going down this path, they are either living in a pipe dream where they do have their cake and eat too, or (as many suspect) they are trying to create conditions where the rest of the UK finally gives up on Scotland and the Union altogether. At the very least, it is an admission that while Scotland can get on as fiscally autonomous within the UK, it cannot continue with current levels of spending without something plugging the gap – whether that means cutting spending, increasing taxes, or benefiting from the financial assistance of the rest of UK.

     With regard to the Union itself, it is the nationalists and their supporters who are quite negative about it. Throughout the referendum campaign and up to the present, it has been common to read from a pro-independence columnist and/or tweeter who talks about the UK as being a country in terminal decline, living in its past, and having absolutely no hope for the future. Further, they characterize the UK as being this horrendously dark and scary place that watches poor people suffer with a smile on its face and hates immigrants, which does nothing but paint a broad brush against the Union and makes unfair characterizations about the people inhabiting it.

     If only these people could join with their fellow British citizens in moving forward and striving to understand one another, while pushing on to build a better Britain – which naturally and quite critically involves building a better Scotland. That should be the ideal as opposed to breaking apart.

     Federalism – in the way the US, Germany, Australia, or Canada exercise it – in my view can help to achieve this and strengthen the Union. FFA – the SNP’s (and Macwhirter's) butchered and bastardized federalism – will not, and thank God it has been defeated in the Commons.

     Going forward, I hope to write further on federalism and how it is practiced in Germany, Canada, Australia, the United States, and perhaps others. In particular, I would like to shed light on how their tax systems work, as well as their mechanisms for fiscal transfers, and the amount of fiscal autonomy exercised by the federated governments, which helps to achieve a healthy balance between them and the federal government, and binds the country into one.

     If Britain can achieve something like this and the British people strive to make it work, Britain – in my ever humble opinion  shall endure.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Folly of Devolution Thus Far and (Worse) EVEL

The Parliament of the United Kingdom
(Credit: Jim Trodel via Flickr cc)

     Ever since the advent of devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in the late 1990’s, there has not yet been an answer to the infamous West Lothian Question, whereby MP’s from those areas cannot vote on matters that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, or Northern Irish Assembly, but can vote on such issues in the British Parliament at Westminster – even though their own constituents are not directly affected.

     Devolution of certain issues to those legislatures meant that such issues – like health and education – were no longer issues of a UK-wide concern, and were now effectively English issues being decided by the UK Parliament at Westminster – including by Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MP’s, despite English MP’s having no such say over devolved matters in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

     The West Lothian Question is so named because it was brought up by Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for West Lothian during the parliamentary debates on devolution in the 1970’s. It was he who asked how such a then-hypothetical situation could be sustained, and as such, he was a prominent opponent of devolution because nobody could provide him with an answer to his question. 

     Now with devolution entering a stage in which substantial legislative and fiscal powers are set to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament (in fulfillment of the Vow made towards the end of the independence referendum campaign), there is an increasing need to answer Dalyell’s 40 year old question.

     Labour attempted to answer it by proposing regional devolution within England following the devolution it had established in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Tony Blair's government succeeded in a referendum to devolve power to Greater London, which involved the creation of the directly elected Mayor of London. However, the attempt to create a devolved assembly in North East England was so heavily defeated by the electorate of that region in a 2004 referendum, that the idea was shelved for all the other regions (bar London), and the government effectively kicked an answer to the WLQ into the long grass.

     The answer that is now set to be pursued by the current Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron appears to be English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). This has been Conservative Party policy since devolution came about, and it has different variants, but the gist of it is that the Speaker of the House of Commons will determine which bills going through the Commons are applicable only to England (or England and Wales), and therefore require a majority of only English (or English and Welsh) MP’s to pass such legislation. Some variants of EVEL call for an absolute “veto” in which relevant MP’s will have the ultimate say over such legislation, regardless of how other MP’s may vote. Others merely allow for those MP’s alone to vote at the committee stage (where amendments can be made), whilst allowing the full Commons to vote on the legislation at its final stage.

     Either way, EVEL will likely mean some dilution in the voice of Scottish MP’s in the British Parliament because it is simply becoming more difficult to justify their votes on issues that do not affect their constituents – issues which have essentially become English issues because of devolution.

     What’s ironic is that the Scottish National Party (SNP) campaigned heavily at the last election on a platform of “making Scotland’s voice heard” and “giving a louder voice for Scotland” at Westminster – as if to say that Scotland never had a voice there, which is plainly ludicrous, as Scotland as been sending MP’s to Parliament since the Union began in 1707. (Here, they engage in the art form of conflating Scotland with the SNP.) 

     However, as an acquaintance of mine in Scotland – a gentleman named Graeme – has said, devolution has “turned the hypothetical ‘West Lothian Question’ into reality, creating a situation in which Scottish MPs were voting on English affairs that English MPs no longer had any say over in Scotland.” Furthermore, he adds that as devolution was being implemented during the last Labour government (1997-2010), the UK had a Scot – Gordon Brown – “representing a Scottish constituency [and] serving as Chancellor and then Prime Minister formulating policies on health, education, policing, etc in England that were no longer within the remit of the UK Government within Scotland.” 

     Now with the recent extraordinary success of the SNP in winning 56 of 59 Scottish seats in the Commons and the prospect of further devolution (including the full devolution of setting income tax) to Holyrood, the constitutional anomaly of the WLQ has become “unsustainable” and EVEL “has more or less” become inevitable. 

     However, Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman disagrees with such notions, and claims that for decades, Scotland has had to put up with “England’s political preferences.” But this attempt to say that “karma’s a b****” with regard to Scottish influence across the UK ignores the changes wrought by devolution. It also ignores the idea that British general elections ought to be about what the voters across the UK want, as opposed to attempting to break the votes down by certain areas. However, even when you do this, what you find is that since World War II, Scotland has gotten the government it wants more often than not, and indeed on two occasions – in 1964 and 1974 – Scotland voted for and got a Labour government, even though England voted Tory. In a democracy, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. 

     Nevertheless, devolution was brought about to address a “democratic deficit” with regard to Scotland’s place within the Union, and to lessen “English influence” on “Scottish affairs.” With this, logic follows that some people in England may wish to lessen “Scottish influence” on “English affairs.” 

     McMillan says this ignores the “brute fact” that the UK is an asymmetrical union in which 85% of the population resides in one part of the country – England, and that EVEL will shut Scotland out of critical decisions that affect the UK as a whole – including Scotland.

     Unionists such as Graeme are then oft to point out that this is an admission that devolution – at the very least – is a flawed concept whose architects failed to think through its implications on Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole, and its implementation in a piecemeal manner failed to engage the UK as a whole on constitutional matters.

     They also contend that the asymmetry to which McMillan refers did not exist before devolution, for with a single sovereign parliament in London, all of the British people were represented by MP’s who could equally participate in the parliamentary process in full without question. This allowed for many Scots to take their rightful place in powerful and prominent positions in government – defense secretaries, home secretaries, foreign secretaries, chancellors of the Exchequer, and prime ministers – and representing the interests of the UK as a whole (including Scotland). 

     Only after the high-charged and emotive rhetoric of “Tory government’s we didn’t vote for” and “English laws imposed on Scotland” (especially following the eleven years of Margaret Thatcher’s government – 1979-1990 during which Scotland repeatedly voted Labour, though the UK as a whole voted Conservative) followed by devolution in 1999 did the fundamental nature of Scottish parliamentary representation come under question – first with the cutting of Scotland’s MP’s from 72 to 59, and now the proposals for EVEL.

     McMillan claims that this is “largely designed to massage the wounded pride of English Tory MPs by offering them a bump up the pecking-order in the public-school politics of Westminster.” However, with the West Lothian Question becoming a reality (as Tam Dalyell had warned), English MP’s – whatever their political stripe – have a legitimate constitutional issue. By attempting to solve one democratic deficit, another one was created in the process.

     This is not to say that EVEL is the optimal response, but after the clamor for “more powers” for the Scottish Parliament (including the prospect of Full Fiscal Autonomy (FFA), where all taxes raised in Scotland would go to Holyrood) should anyone be surprised? 

     But realistically, given the geographic reality, England will never truly be free of Scottish influence, and Scotland will certainly never be free of English influence.

     Using veteran nationalist Paul Henderson Scott’s description of Scotland’s relationship with England as that of being in bed with an elephant – and the need to be free of the elephant, Kenny Farquharson wrote recently in The Times that this failed to “acknowledge basic geography and economics.” Without the United Kingdom holding them together, Scotland and England may well move to separate beds, but will still have to share the same room – the same island, Great Britain. Being ten times the size of Scotland, Farquharson notes that “England will always be our bigger, more populous, more powerful neighbor” and what it does “politically, economically, culturally — will always have a profound effect on us [in Scotland].”

     In other words – despite what some nationalists may want to believe – Scotland cannot ignore its big sister, the elephant. Farquharson goes on to mention that Scotland’s exports within the UK – to England, Northern Ireland, and Wales – amounted to £44.9 billion, which is a considerable sum when one considers that Scottish exports to the rest of the world combined was £22 billion (and less than half of this was with the European Union).

     Indeed, one of the flaws of EVEL is how to know what issues can be classified as “English only” or “English and Welsh only”, for even though a piece of paper may say that, members from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can also argue that because of England’s size, legislation that legally applies only to England can (and will) have affects – particularly financial – on the rest of the UK.

     This is why EVEL is quite controversial, for it would create two classes of MP’s – English MP’s with full time access to the Commons and all stages of the parliamentary process in the Commons, and non-English MP’s who would effectively be told to stay out of their own parliament on certain days, even though the legislation and issues debated on those days may indirectly affect their constituents. 

     It is also why even though Yes Scotland and the SNP were campaigning on the idea of Scotland being master of its destiny, they were also trying to argue for a form of independence that would retain links with the rest of the UK, but leave it without the ability to shape it, as the continuing Union would continue to substantially influence Scotland – regardless of the constitutional arrangements.

     This points to the importance of maintaining the United Kingdom as something that is in Scotland’s best interests, and maintaining as firm a Union as possible with full and complete parliamentary representation in Parliament for everybody, rather than trying to unravel it and creating more grievances along the way. 

     Indeed, one of the reasons for the merger of England and Scotland into the UK was to give Scotland access to the much larger English markets, and this – along with the much wider British Empire – proved to be highly beneficial to Scotland. But even without the Empire, being part of the United Kingdom, as Farquharson points out, has been beneficial to Scotland’s economic prospects more than anything else, and UK as a whole has benefited from Scottish contributions (in terms of human, social, financial, natural, and instructional capital) that have helped to make it a global leader and significant world power, which in turn provides benefits to the UK – including Scotland.

     Attempting to loosen the UK with well-meaning, but ill thought out devolution and EVEL threatens to upset these necessary bonds – political, economic, and social – which keep Britain together. Indeed, one of the disheartening prospects is that there may never again be a Chancellor of the Exchequer or Prime Minister from Scotland representing a Scottish constituency. 

     On this point, my friend Graeme believes that:

“Nationalism and devolution has not increased Scotland's power and influence within the Union, it has significantly diminished it. It has rendered much of Scotland's influence within the wider UK intolerable to that part of the UK which forms the majority of its population, and has made it very difficult for it to be [constitutionally] acceptable for any Scottish MP to occupy any cabinet post other than that of Foreign or Defence Secratary, because any other cabinet position would make them responsible for policies in England over which the English have no say over in Scotland, which the English no longer consider to be either fair or acceptable.”

     He further laments that thanks to “poorly handled devolution and [acquiescence] to nationalist demands” Scotland and Scots, “once a powerful and disproportionately influential voice within the Union, have rendered themselves in some respects as bystanders to larger issues within the United Kingdom” – many of which will continue to affect Scotland.

     The result, he fears, will be that “England and the English will come to dominate the UK far more than they have ever done” and that this was perhaps the way the nationalists had planned it, for it certainly would give them “even more grievance fuel to further their agenda”, and that some Scots “will believe them when they say that England is unfairly denying Scotland a voice within the UK by freezing them out of influence at Westminster.” It would make the roar of the Scottish lion “sound more like a cat’s mewling.”

     McMillan attempts to get around this by saying that it would be rather pompous for English Tories to talk about “speaking for England”, as if England is a homogenous community when in fact it is not – pointing out that “the England of the 21st century is a vastly diverse nation, which contains millions of people – from Liverpool to Portsmouth, from Truro to South Shields – who are fully as exasperated with the current Westminster establishment, and its failed politics of austerity, as any Scottish voter.” Her solution is to use the House of Lords as a chamber that represents the nations of the UK, as well as the regions within England, which in her view, would meet the “standards of 21st-century democracy.”

     As it is, I have written on how the Lords can be reformed in such a way. Looking back, this probably should have been the way to go in addressing the asymmetries that she refers to, which have also been noted by many pro-Union politicians such as Gordon Brown. If this had been achieved long ago, it may have averted the need for devolution, because it would have guaranteed a level of Scottish representation in the upper house that would have been on par – or nearly on par – with England, so that Scotland’s voice (or rather voices, since Scotland is just as diverse as England) could be heard and provide wisdom and scrutiny to government legislation. Even if a reformed Lords did not have the absolute ability to block government legislation, it could – with substantial Scots influence – force the government to think again on its agenda.

     Indeed, perhaps another flaw in devolution was that it made changes along the edges of the British constitution without also making changes at the center, and this has left the country with an unbalanced governmental structure that is prone to misunderstandings and grievance-mongering.

     Of course, there would still be people making the case for devolution and decentralization from London. In fact, the idea of revamping the United Kingdom into a federal union like the United States has taken hold in some quarters in the wake of the referendum. But even Gordon Brown has remarked that federalism can only go but so far in a country where 85% of the population lives in one area, and most forms of federalism still mean having a strong central government with the ability to levy and collect taxes, and make an array of laws that directly apply to all people throughout the entire union.

     In essence, federalism means that there are some powers exclusively exercised by the federal government, some powers exclusively exercised by the federated governments, and some powers are exercised jointly. For example, in the US and Germany, the setting of income and corporate taxes are a joint responsibility of federal and state governments. The federal governments and legislatures in both countries are quite powerful – though their power is limited in certain areas. 

     Indeed, the authority of the British Parliament at Westminster has already been limited in practice, regardless of the fact that it possesses ultimate sovereignty across the UK. The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and Northern Irish Assembly are now semi-permanent institutions to the point where no prime minister or his/her government will dare contemplate abolishing them.

     The issue at hand now is how these institutions, the British Parliament, and potential institutions in England can fit into a federal framework for the United Kingdom as a whole. This will require an end to ad hoc devolution (including the proposal for Full Fiscal Autonomy for Holyrood) as well as the crude answers contained in the proposals for EVEL. Joyce McMillan herself acknowledged that the decision to devolve control of setting income tax rates was “strange and hasty”, for the income tax allows for one of the most transparent forms of redistribution from wealthier parts of a country to another, and the concept of pooling and sharing resources throughout the United Kingdom for the benefit of all was one of the main arguments used for keeping Scotland as part of the Union. 

     If the Union is to survive at this point, there needs to be the establishment of a UK constitutional convention that will attempt to sort out the issues of British governance and forge a lasting constitutional settlement that is as “fair” as possible to everybody.  It means looking at the United Kingdom as a whole and having a firm understanding of how it ought to work going forward, which – among other things means defining the powers of a federal UK Parliament (as Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution does for the US Congress), the limits on the federal parliament (Article 1, Section 9), and the powers and limitations on the federated governments of the nations and regions within the UK (Article 1, Section 10).

     It also means defining the values that bring Britain together as a country, and establishing principles upon which the people and their representatives can build on.

     This effort will require an enormous amount of good faith, tact, skill, statesmanship (likely in the face of political party interest), creative imagination, and a sense of vision and purpose to make such a settlement a success. It will also require the participation of people from all walks of life in Britain – including ordinary citizens, civic organizations, and faith groups in an expression of British civic participation that may also facilitate bringing people together and forging a sense of a common identity and common ideals for Britain going forward. 

     The brute reality is that Scotland and England have been interfering in each others affairs for centuries, and they really can't help it, given the island they share. The Union simply made it official, and in my opinion, it is in everyone’s interest for Britain to remain together, for Britain has so much collective potential, and its people can achieve much more together – not just for themselves, but for the world at large than they could ever do apart.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Saving a Great British Icon

     Nearly seven years after her last voyage as an operational ocean liner, the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 is still one of the most famous vessels in the world. 

     Launched by Her Majesty the Queen in 1967, she sailed on her maiden voyage to New York in 1969 into an uncertain future as ships like her were no longer the primary means of traveling in the age of air travel. Indeed, the Cunard Line, her owner gambled almost everything on her to save it from extinction in the face of this new reality that had seen the transatlantic ocean liner market virtually collapse in less than a generation since the end of World War II. 

     Despite the odds against it however, the QE2 – as she quickly and popularly became known – went on the sail the seas for nearly 40 years. With her revolutionary design, she was able to be flexible as a transatlantic ocean liner between Southampton and New York in the summer and as a cruise ship in warmer waters (including an annual world cruise) during the winter months – allowing her to make money virtually year-around for Cunard and remain commercially viable through much of her career. 

QE2 in Trondheim, Norway - June 2008
Trondheim Havn Wikipedia Commons cc)

     Throughout that illustrious career, she carried many over 2.5 million passengers – from the well-known (including royalty, presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, and celebrities) to people of modest means who would only make one passage aboard QE2 in their lifetime. All were treated to unparalleled and sophisticated luxury aboard a ship that carried the legacy of the great Atlantic liners that had come before her, and she developed a solid reputation for reliability and comfort – setting a standard against which other ships were compared. 

     Along the way, she made 806 transatlantic crossings and sailed 6 million miles. This included the period during which she served her country in the Falkland’s War as a troop transport (just as her predecessors had done in the previous world wars). In addition, she was the longest-serving liner in Cunard’s history, as well as its longest-serving flagship. On top of that, the QE2 was the fastest operating passenger vessel until her retirement. 

     That retirement came when the QE2 was sold to Dubai World for $100 million and sailed there in November 2008, where she was supposed to be converted into a floating hotel like the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. However, at the time when QE2 was purchased in 2007, the property boom was at its height, and by the time of her arrival over a year later, the global economy was on a downward trend, and this seriously affected the QE2’s prospects in Dubai. Since then, no conversion work has been done on her, and all long-term plans for use of the ship have fallen through.

RMS Queen Mary as a floating hotel, convention center,
and maritime museum in Long Beach, California.
(Credit: Christopher Finot via Wikimedia Commons cc)

     Up until two years ago, she was very visible and well-kept at a berth in Dubai with her engines and internal power systems still running as if ready to head back out to sea again. In 2009, she was drydocked and her hull was cleaned and given a fresh coat of paint, which raised prospects of sunny days ahead. However, the engines have been since turned off, and without them, the ship has been left to bake in the desert sun of the Middle East – with mold and mildew now making themselves present. Worse, she has been placed into a rather nondescript area with tankers and cargo ships, and the latest photos show her looking derelict and forlorn – as if she is being deliberately left to rot. Other photos, including those with workers roasting pigs near the swimming pools, have only confirmed the languishing state in which the former flagship of the British merchant fleet finds herself. 

     Rob Lightbody, the founder The QE2 Story – a website dedicated to preserving the memory of the great vessel and to raising awareness to save it – told The Scotsman: “Nothing has happened to it in the last two and a half years. There’s no power. There’s no air. She’s filthy.” 

     Dubai meanwhile have been frustratingly silent on the fate of this much-beloved ship. Having promised to be faithful stewards of the QE2 from the outset – with an ambitious plan for her going forward – they have all but signaled that they are no longer interested in what was once supposed to be the crown jewel of their Palm Jumeriah development. This lack of interest is only ripe for them to want to be rid of what has now become a liability, and by any means if necessary, which obviously means the scrapyard.

     However, there are those who are adamant on not allowing this to happen, and have been working to get the QE2 returned home to the United Kingdom, where she undoubtedly belongs. But then, where should she go?

     With regard to suitable locations in the UK for QE2 to enjoy her retirement, I believe Greencock, Southampton, Liverpool, and London should be considered in that order. 

     Why Greenock at the top? Well, the QE2 was built on the River Clyde – specifically at the John Brown shipyard in Clydebank (just to the west of Glasgow), where many other Cunarders were also built, and the wharf where those great liners were fitted out is still there. This would make it a suitable location, were it not for the Erskine Bridge that was built downriver from Clydebank in 1971 after the QE2 had been constructed. It has a clearance of 148 feet, which is not high enough for the QE2 – 171 feet tall from the water line – to sail under, unless her iconic funnel and mast where removed and replaced upon her arrival at the old Brown’s yard.

Hull 736 on the stocks at John Brown's in Clydebank before her launch as Queen Elizabeth 2.
© Copyright James Allan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)
     Barring that unlikely scenario, Greenock at the mouth of the Clyde would be the next best option. It was where the QE2 was drydocked for the final stages of her construction and fitting out, and she visited the area in 2007 for the 40th anniversary of her launch and in 2008 during her farewell tour of the UK before sailing off to Dubai. 

     In addition, Stephen McCabe, the council leader of Inverclyde (which contains Greencock) pointed out the reception received by the RMS Queen Mary 2 – Cunard’s current flagship and now the only operating ocean liner in the world – when she visited the area along the lower Clyde a few weeks ago to celebrate Cunard’s 175th anniversary. Even though she was not Clyde-built like her predecessors – starting with the first Cunarder Britannia – in many ways, there was a spiritual connection because of the generations of Cunarders that have been built there. 

     Many other vessels have been built along the Clyde as well, and the area has also been a major port of entry for maritime trade – so much so, that at one point, Glasgow was considered the second city of the British Empire. During World War II, the Clyde also played host as a strategic landing point for hundreds of thousands of American and Canadian servicemen who were to take part in the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied continental Europe. Many of those people sailed across the Atlantic courtesy of the Clyde-built steamers Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, each of whom were converted to carry over 15,000 people at a time, and for their extraordinary contribution to the war effort, they were commended by Prime Minister Winston Churchill for shortening the war by a year or more. 

Queen Mary arriving in New York carrying thousands of serviceman home following the end of World War II. To this day, she retains the record for the most souls ever carried aboard a single vessel: 16,683 (including crew) on a crossing from New York to Greenock in July 1943.
(Credit: Public Domain)

     With this heritage in mind, Councillor McCabe said to The Telegraph that “it is clear that the QE2 could be a major draw for visitors to Inverclyde and Scotland. It could also boost the promotion of the Clyde and Inverclyde’s proud maritime history to a national and, potentially, international audience.” 

     The next logical location for the great liner would be Southampton, her home port for 40 years. This city was proud of having the ship carry its name around the world to various locations – providing it with an exposure that it otherwise might not have had. The people living there treated the QE2 as a semi-permanent landmark – a point of local pride that had a global reach, and they gave the vessel a fitting send-off in 2008 when she departed for the last time. For them, the loss of the QE2 was more than a loss of a ship; it was like the loss of a long-time neighbor and friend – a void left unfilled. 

     Southampton is still a major working port, with ships – including modern cruise liners, ferries, and cargo vessels – arriving and departing every day. It is also ancient, having hosted many ships throughout its history, including greatest ocean liners in the world – such as the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Aquitania, and Olympic. The city is particularly known for its connection to the Titanic, since it was the port from which the doomed White Star liner sailed on its maiden and only voyage in 1912.

RMS Titanic casting off from Southampton on April 10, 1912.
     With this rich maritime heritage, Southampton is a suitable location for a vessel that will do more than its bit to celebrate that heritage and to further enhance it.

     Liverpool meanwhile, does not have the substantial links to the QE2 as the River Clyde or Southampton. Liverpool was not its home port, and nor was it the place of its birth. However, Liverpool is in many ways, the QE2’s spiritual home – being the long-time base of operations for the Cunard Line, and it was in Liverpool where the QE2 was conceived and designed. Today, the Cunard Building still stands alongside the Liver Building and Port of Liverpool Building at Pier Head along the River Mersey. These buildings – collectively known as the Three Graces – dominate the Liverpool skyline and stand as a testimate to Liverpool’s own heritage as a significant maritime and trading port. 

     Like Southampton, Liverpool was also connected to maritime tragedy – being the port where the Cunarder Lusitania was destined to arrive just over a century ago on May 7, 1915, but was torpedoed by a German U-boat that morning and sank off the coast of Ireland during World War I.

The Three Graces of Liverpool, with the Cunard Building in the middle.
(Credit: Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons cc)
     In addition to its association with the Cunard Line, Liverpool also hosted the headquarters of other shipping companies, most notably Cunard’s arch-rival, the White Star Line, whose old offices still stand at 30 James Street. As such, Liverpool was also the port of registry (the official home port) of the Titanic, as well as that of many other ships from Cunard and White Star – although both companies had moved their main terminus to Southampton by the 1920’s. 

     By the time QE2 was built, the city was not even included as the official home port with “Liverpool” written across the stern (rear) of the ship, for Southampton had taken precedence when Cunard moved its headquarters there. Nevertheless, Cunard did recognize their shared heritage with the city by sending her there nine times over the course of her 40 year career. Most recently, the company’s latest edition of its fleet – the Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabethwere all in Liverpool to celebrate its 175th anniversary from the time when Canadian-born entrepreneur Samuel Cunard founded it.

     With these facts in mind, it is clear to see why the first three cities I have mentioned should have a clear shot at being the new home of the QE2. In contrast, London has virtually no connection to the QE2not even a one-off visit from the ship. There is nothing against London in my bones, but it simply does not have the same status with regard to the QE2 as Greenock, Southampton, and Liverpool – not even close to it, but it is included in the conversation in part because of its status as Britain’s capital city, as well as a world city that is a prime tourist destination.

     In addition, QE2 London – an organization that is working to get the QE2 permanently berthed along the Thames – have been promoting their proposals since 2012, which are already well-developed and involve placing the vessel near the O2 Arena on the east side of the city. Its project manager is John Chillingworth, a former chief engineer with Cunard who worked aboard QE2 for 20 years. He was also the general manager tasked with overseeing the conversion of the ship in Dubai before those plans were shelved, and has estimated that £100million would be needed to purchase the ship, return it home, and transform her into a 530-room hotel and entertainment center. 

A mock-up of the QE2 berthed across from the O2 Arena along the Thames in London.
(Credit: QE2 London)
     Chillingworth is also open to the idea of bringing the ship to Liverpool or Clydeside – stating that feasibility studies have shown that all of them could house the vessel with a potential return on investment towards the end of 10 years.

     Given the dire circumstances however, it may be unproductive to be too picky on where the Queen Elizabeth 2 ought to be located. Any of the places mentioned, including London, are infinitely better than where she is right now – in a location for which she was not designed for long periods of time, where her needs and maintenance are neglected by people who were looking to make a quick buck, and are now probably all too happy to get rid of her by any means necessary.

     In contrast, at any location within the United Kingdom, she will be welcomed back into the country where she was built, where was home-ported, and whose flag she flew. She will be treasured and cherished by people who care about her and will care for her, and I’m sure there may even be some people who will gladly volunteer to help bring back the ship to her prime condition.

     Some people will say that as unfortunate as it may be, it is probably time to let the great liner go and be scrapped. After all they say – with justification – that we cannot expect to save all the ocean liners that have ever been built, and the brute reality is that when a ship reaches the end of its intended use of sailing on the high seas, its only realistic destination is the scrap yard. As the last captain of the Queen Mary said upon the great liner departing New York for the last time in 1967: “Ships, like [human beings], have a time limit, and they day must come when we go.”

     However, the Queen Elizabeth 2 is different, and ought to be an exception to the rule. For 40 years, she sailed across the waves representing the best of Britain to the world with a standard of luxury, comfort, style, and class that made her stand out amongst her contemporaries. Many a passenger has said that upon boarding the QE2, they knew what to expect from such an illustrious vessel and were always impressed, especially by the service rendered aboard – whether it was on a transatlantic crossing or a cruise in tropical areas. When people saw the QE2 – as I did in New York several times – they did not have to ask name of the ship, for she was that distinctive from the rest of the pack. 

RMS Queen Mary 2 in Southampton. She is a fabulous liner in her own right and
carries on the traditions of her predecessors, but unlike them,
does not carry the distinction of being British-built.
(Credit: Barry Skeates via Flickr cc)
     The result is that she one of Britain’s best-known exports to the world.  More fundamentally, as John Chillingworth has pointed out, not only is she the “best known ship in the world and an important part of British maritime history”, but she is also the last British-built passenger liner, and that alone makes her special and worth saving. It is why a location along the Clyde is preferable, for while she is a British national treasure, she was built in Scotland, and is also the Pride of the Clyde – the last of a long line of ocean liners built on the river, and the embodiment of generations of shipbuilding heritage.

     Chillingworth has said that if Scots can but pressure on Dubai and raise funding for an organization similar to his in London, he “would welcome the opportunity to assist them as our ultimate aim is to save the ship and provide a viable future for her.” 

     Whichever way it goes for the QE2 in the UK, it is likely that help from the government – financially and otherwise – will be needed.

     Council leader Stephen McCabe of Inverclyde has said: “Bringing the QE2 home is a herculean task, one that requires national support in Scotland and perhaps across the UK, if it has any chance of happening.” Meanwhile, Stuart McMillan, an MSP for the West of Scotland region, said that several agencies and governing institutions would have to work together, including the “Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise, Inverclyde Council, and Clydeport”, and like McCabe, he is looking to the potential for a boost in tourism and economic development that would “generate more jobs for the area and restore a key part of Scotland’s maritime heritage to Inverclyde.”

RMS Queen Elizabeth - the largest passenger liner built in the United Kingdom.
(Credit: Public Domain)
     In addition to writing to appropriate people and public bodies in Britain, Councillor McCabe has also said that Inverclyde intends to ask Dubai for an assessment on the situation, where the government, according to Chillingworth, have “advised that they are considering their options.

     As a person who has a passion for the great ocean liners, it is enormously heartbreaking to see what is happening to the QE2, and it would be even more depressing to see her taken away to a beach in Asia to be ignominiously scrapped as the last of her kind.

     In America, we have our own iconic vessel, the SS United States, which like the QE2 was the national flagship and a source of national pride. The Big U – as she became known – became the fastest passenger ship ever built when she crossed the Atlantic in just over three days on her maiden voyage in 1952 and beat the Queen Mary’s best time by 10 hours. However like many other vessels, the Big U fell victim to the advent of even faster air travel, and she was withdrawn from service in November 1969. Since then, she has passed through several owners – all of them with plans to resuscitate the ship which have fallen though, and now she is tied up along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and like the QE2, is facing uncertain future. 

SS United States
(Credit: The Hartford Guy via Flickr cc)
     Both Britain and America have rich seafaring traditions which ought to be celebrated and cherished. This is true for Britain in particular because of it being an island nation dependent on overseas trade throughout the world.

     For this reason, it ought to be imperative that both ships be saved. In the QE2’s case, there needs to be cooperation between the UK Government, private entities, individuals, and the governing institutions and agencies of the areas that are willing to berth the ship – whether it be in Greenock, Southampton, Liverpool, or London. Indeed, if it is possible, perhaps all of the places that had a connection to the QE2 ought to have a stake in the ship, regardless of where she ends up in the UK. Going further, she can be a great national project for the UK in terms of restoring her to her former glory and making her both a symbol of what Britain was able to go at one time, and a symbol of what it can do going forward. 

RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 on her last visit to the Clyde in 2008.
(Credit: Dave Souza via Wikimedia Commons cc)
     Time is running out for the QE2, and there is the real possibility that she will be scrapped, and if that were to happen, I cannot help but to believe that the UK will have lost a part of itself in the process. Bringing her back will not be easy, and will require the cooperation and good faith of many people and organizations. But with help from all stakeholders and the wider public, she – a great British icon, the pride of the Clyde built in Scotland – can be returned home to a more happy and glorious future.


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