Time for a federal UK?

This is bravado – it has to be since in a few days time there will be a referendum ion Scotland that may change everything. Or not, of course. Except that it will – it really can’t help itself. Anyway, here is a proposal for you to think about.

First – if Scotland votes “No”.

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, on 01.01.2015 the House of Commons becomes the English Parliament and in it sits the existing English MP’s. Excluding the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office they take over the entire structure of government in Westminster and Whitehall. So far no costs have been incurred.

It is up to the Scots, the Welsh and those in Northern Ireland to decide what they do with their elected MP’s.

We then create a Federal Assembly to whom the MoD and the FO report. I suggest this should contain 74 members: 64 elected by the English Assembly from their elected members, 5 for the Scots, 3 for Wales and 2 for NP. That is on a basis of one member per million of the national populations (rounded UP for the smaller nations and DOWN for England). Again how the other nations appoint/elect their members would be up to them. This assembly meets as required in the HoL chamber and takes over the entire structure of Mod and the FO. Still no great cost.

Some matters should be dealt with on a federal basis but are presently not in either of those two departments. Those functions could be transferred – the border control from Home Office to the MoD, say, complete with the Border Agency. Still no great cost.

There may be a few other institutions that would have to work with the federal assembly but the only one I can think of is the Bank of England.

Meanwhile all the four national assemblies from that date have equal powers including the power to raise whatever taxes they like. Call it devo-max for all. Each would contribute as needed to the federal coffers (and I can see some interesting arguments between the four as to the level of each contribution) but how they raise that is up to the national assemblies.

I am, of course, assuming that the Welsh and those in Northern Ireland would welcome this move.

Second if Scotland votes “Yes”.

Much as above. Scotland would be invited to become a member of the Federation known as the UK from day one and would probably accept. If, however, they refused then it really is the end of the road with them. All that belongs to the UK is brought south and a proper border with all the usual controls is created and the Federation has only three members – and that federation would tell Scotland what was on the table – there would be no negotiations. There would be no purpose in them. Meanwhile, the possibility of Scotland joining the UK as a new member should remain on the table.

What’s not to like? It’s simple, it offers what most people seem to be saying they now want and it would not cost a great deal nor would it add any further to the required civil service/bureaucracy.

Am afterthought: I would be even happier if the federation elected to leave the EU.

The Smallest Competent Authority revisited

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil: in its worst state, an intolerable one. (Thomas Paine)

This is what I wrote in March 2011.

Having entered the seventh decade of my life I often find myself becoming very cross with those who are running our country. Indeed, the whole process which once seemed so reasonable now seems awful – mendacious, self-serving and (most importantly) grossly inefficient. Over the years I have come to believe the following statements:-

It is beyond the wit of man properly to govern the sort of complex, multi-layered society in which we, in the UK, now live (or we aren’t as clever as we think we are!).

The form of representative democracy that we have in this country no longer works in the best interests of the people as it fails to meet the needs of many members of the electorate and has handed too much power to central government – as opposed to parliament – and to innumerable unaccountable bodies.

If, as seems likely, the problem is one of scale then the solution is to reduce the size of problems until they are small enough to be understood. Small problems, analysed as close to the source of difficulty as possible, with decisions being taken at as local a level as possible are far more likely to result in sensible decisions being made. Put it another way: all decisions should be taken by the smallest competent authority accepting that that could be anything from a town or parish council to the a multi-national authority such as the U.N.

* * *

After that blog appeared, I received a very interesting email from Marek Kubik which included the following.

“From reading your more recent blog posts I see you’re a fan of local governance. Breaking down the problem into smaller chunks and making it easier to solve. I can see the logic behind this, but I also didn’t see consideration for the potential pitfalls; namely:”

He then lists three points which I would like to take one at a time. The first is this:

“Centralisation is arguably better for efficiency (as one amalgamated office for say, the treasury is more efficient and cost effective to run than a separate one in every constituency).”

My first reaction is that this is not always true. Clearly where the requirements are identical in all respects (such as all the branches of a chain of opticians) and there are no local variations, savings can be made by centralising design and purchasing. However, that is generally not true when it comes to governance. Areas are different: they have different needs, different local suppliers and there is likely to be a difference when considering what the people of the area need and want. This is true even within the NHS. Every hospital has (or I assume has) a stand-by generating plant. Should they all buy the same model or even from the same supplier? I would argue that the answer is ‘no’. For a start, not all hospitals would need the same size of generator – so there can be no ‘best’ manufacturer to cover the entire range. Secondly is the question of the proximity of a service facility: If you are the western end of Cornwall you do not want to rely on a service engineer coming from, say, Bristol.

Here is the second. “Letting my engineering background shine through, a local based government system could be considered sub-optimal from a systemic point of view. The sum of local optimums may be worse than a single global optimum. By this I mean if every local community only looks out for and funds itself, the poorer communities will struggle most. Under a centralised system the taxes from the funding can be coordinated that the wealthiest constituencies can be redistributed to the poorest. I guess I’m talking about the concept of ‘the greater good’ here, and that is something that I guess depends very much on your political philosophy as to its relevance.”

Here I absolutely agree in that Marek hits on a problem that would arise unless it were to be properly addressed. My preferred solution (at the moment and very much work in progress) is that all income related taxes and property taxes should be collected on a local basis – both personal and business – whilst VAT, Customs and Excise and other taxes should be centrally collected. In this day and age of computers that should not present any administrative problems (but would, of course, if the IT is unreliable). One of the functions of central government would be to administer a levelling grant to local areas based on a formula taking into consideration a range of factors (each area’s average income, population, etc). Incidentally, at this stage I am deliberately not defining what I mean by ‘a local area’ as that is a complex subject requiring more consideration.

Marek’s third point was: “Re-emphasis on localism could potentially detract from national unity. This sounds like a very authoritarian statement from someone like me (I’m slightly left of centre and slightly libertarian on the political compass), but what I mean here is a danger of different laws and legislation being ratified in different parts of the UK. So, to take an extreme example, one liberal area supports and legalises full rights for gay marriage, and a very conservative one overturns and outlaws it.”

Yes, but that is the whole point. To put it bluntly, what is localism? Looked at on a global scale, were there a global authority which pronounced on, say, gay rights I would hazard a guess that there would be more against such rights than for. Whether or not that is true, I would be most upset – I am also a libertarian but swing wildly between left and right as I go from subject to subject – if gay legislation ion this country were to be reversed as a result.

All of which assumes, of course, that if the local authority is a major tax raising authority it will be taken more seriously by the electorate – but that again is another subject.

* * *

Reading through that piece again today, I remain convinced that central decision making far from what we have come to call ‘the coal face’ is at best inefficient and at times utterly wrong. This is true, I believe, in all walks of life, not just the government. There are two problems with it. The first is that the information from said coal face to the decision maker will have passed through a number of hands and some of those hands (if not all) will have an agenda. They may not even realise that they have one but everyone has one even when they honestly do not realise that they do. Indeed, then it is even more dangerous. Anyway, it means that the person who has to take the decision takes it on false data.

Then there are the distortions in the command as they travel back down through the various layers of managers and administrators, each layer will want to see how these instructions fit with their working practices and will seek to amend or even reverse certain parts of the instruction before passing it on.

And we wonder why each and every decisions seems to result in extra cost, a number of (often expensive) unexpected consequences and not very much actually changing in the intended direction. It is, I feel, reasonable to say that these costs are greater than the so-called savings that may or may not be achieved by centralisation.

One final thought which I do not intend to pursue here. Some of us have been discussing a reverse flow of tax. In other words local collection and the amount that filters trough to what would (in essence) be a federal central government would depend on the relative wealth of each locality. This is work in progress,

Hamas and Israel

Should the UK become involved in the conflict between Israel and Hamas or in the conflict between ISIS and various other groups in the middle east?

It is often said that a government’s prime duty is the defence of the realm. Even that is not as simple as it sounds. As good a place to start is to consider the concept of the ‘just war’.Three such ’causes’ have, since Roman times, been cited as reasons for declaring war: invasion, breaking a treaty and damage to or theft of property.

The UK’s military have been in action continuously since the second world war. In my opinion few of these actions could be described as ‘just’ on that basis. Indeed, only three spring to mind: Korea, Kuwait and the Falklands. Of these only the third involved one of the UK’s possessions. Was there any moral justification for the other interventions?

Many were triggered by human rights atrocities of one sort or another. These always pose a problem for me: such intervention demands that the UK chooses one side over the other and often, with hindsight, it seems that the wrong side was chosen. The classic case of such a decision was the Vietnam War and it is much to Harold Wilson’s credit that he refused to be drawn into that conflict despite huge pressure from the US.

Guilt comes into this too. In places we controlled when we ran an empire, we drew lines on maps that bore little reference to the people living in those areas – especially in Africa. Those who took control in the middle east after the first world war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (which, of course, included the UK) repeated those mistakes: they also drew lines (almost literally in the sand) which took little account of traditional boundaries. To be fair, in all these cases those boundaries were very fluid and fluidity is something that the so-called developed world finds difficult to accept.

There is also a sense of guilt over the creation of the state of Israel. Any group which retains a religious loyalty which transcends national boundaries can be seen as being a threat to governments (even when they are not) and the Jews have been a convenient target for regimes that wished to divert attention from their own actions. It is perfectly understandable that a significant number of Jews would decide that the only escape from anti-Semitism was to create their own homeland.

Thus the creation of a Jewish state in the middle east came into being. You can argue about the rights and wrongs of the creation of that state but the fact is that it was created and, very importantly, it was recognised as being a bona fide state by the United Nations in 1948. Israel created a focal point for inter-group tensions in that part of the middle east and many were not happy to accept the (democratic?) decision of the UN and vowed to destroy Israel and all the Jews living therein.

This is central to many of the problems in the middle east as I see them – which does not mean that I am right. We, the west, think in terms of democracy. They, the people of the middle east do not. They do not respect the ballot box (although many living there world wish it to be otherwise): they respect power. We have ample evidence of that. Following free and fair elections held in places such as Egypt (usually greeted with joy on all fronts) matters begin to turn sour when the new, democratically elected government proves less powerful than the leaders of some of the ‘parties’ that lost at the election.

It is as if, in May 2015, Red Ed were to win the election and the new leader of the opposition (shall we call him J?) succeeded in persuading enough members of our armed forces and or police to mount a military coup. It is impossible to imagine that happening in the UK, isn’t it? Are we sure? If things weren’t working (remember the three-day week, the piles of rubbish in the streets, unburied bodies?) then there could be enough tension for violence to break out and if Red Ed could not restore order and J could . . . We have ample evidence that this scenario, so alien to us here in the UK, would be the norm in parts of the middle east with the possible exception of Israel.

As an aside: to make matters worse, faction A sees that faction B has broken a treaty or damaged property and so the retaliation becomes a just war. But that retaliation also breaks that treaty or damages property and so now faction A sees this as a just war.

To return to the main argument: we have decided that this time we really do know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Let us assume that in this case it is the Israelis who are the bad guys because the have used dis-proportionate force against the people of Gaza.

What can we do? Well, we could stop selling things to Israel (including arms). Assuming that this so weakens Israel as to make it impossible for them to continue action again Gaza (and there is no point in doing it unless that can be achieved) we have now given Hamas the opportunity for which they have been waiting – an Israel weak enough for the forces of destruction to go in and annihilate or evict the Jews: mission accomplished – no more Israel. Only there are a lot of Jews who do not live in the UK and over whom we have no control. It is inconceivable that they would just stand back and watch this happen. Is that sort of action against Israel really likely to bring peace and stability of the middle east?

If you agree with me that it is not, you would also probably agree that we would not be able to clear the first hurdle (making Israel weaker than Gaza) but there is one thing we would achieve. Our government would no longer be on speaking terms with the Israeli government and any influence we might have had would then be lost. (This point was made by Dr Sarah Woolaston MP on letters to some of her constituents and it is, I think, a very valid point despite the reception it received).

So, as far as I can see, there is nothing we can do to make matters better other than to try to help with any peace proposals should our help be sought.

This is NOT to say that I condone the way in which the Israeli have been used. It is NOT to say that I am unmoved by the appalling sights coming our of Gaza. The amount of force used by Israel is terribly wrong and I cannot see that it can do anything other than harm. Frankly I despair of the situation but I am prepared to accept that if I had as a neighbour a regime that was intent on wiping me and mine off the face of the planet, I might well behave just as badly. Wouldn’t you?

Not That It Matters

For various reasons, we have created a division of Devonwriters (the name of the partnership within which I work) called Dartside Press. This is because the office is pretty close to the river Dart here in Devon and this division is going into publishing. We can afford to do this because of ebooks. To do so with printed books would be far too costly.

Even then there is a lot to learn and I decided that I wanted something simple on which to cut my teeth. The result is a compilation of some of the political stuff I wrote in 2011 and 2012 – suitable edited and embellished as required. It is called “Not That It Matters” for two reasons. The first is that it seems a pretty accurate title. The second is that it was the title of a delightful collection of essays written by A A Milne who, apart from his children’s books, was a brilliant writer in an era when writing styles were at their most elegant (a personal opinion, of course). Anyway, this was to doff my cap at him (and at his son near whom we once lived and who I knew slightly).

The book is priced at a very reasonable £1.83 but I am afraid is available from Amazon alone at the moment. I have another steep learning curve to climb before we publish in other formats but hope get there reasonably soon. Should you care to know more click here.

The economic arguments for and against the UK remaining in the EU

As some of you will know, I have been trying to come to a sensible view as to whether or not there are any economic advantages in remaining in the EU. I have read so many contrary views on the subject that I remain convinced that on this it is too close to call but that we should hear as wide a range of opinions as we can.

So I asked Paul Pizzala to write a blog for me and here it is. He trained as an economist (BA Hons Economics) and read Finance and Investing for his MA. Having worked for an investment bank in the City for a number of years, he decided to return to college (Schumacher College here in Dartington to be precise) and now holds an MSc in Holistic Sciences. He is presently Financial Director of the Totnes Renewable Energy Society.

* * *

First I would like to thank Rodney for sponsoring my thoughts on this subject. To frame them my career background is in investment management with a degree in Economics and masters in finance and ecology.

From a career perspective these sorts of meditations seemed to arise on the brink of change inducing a flurry of economic and strategic analysis, in terms of competitive advantage and free trade, leading to a cost benefit analysis. The politics and economics are interwoven: as are issues of sovereignty, national identity and having a place at the negotiating table where powerful global institutions are deemed to shape the course of events and pecking order. Personally, I don’t have sufficient knowledge to untangle the economic and political framework in terms of the treaties that have been negotiated and what rights, subsidies and taxes they create and how this affects the terms of trade and the functioning of a particular economy in a global market.

For me the root question is: how can competition and collaboration be organised in a way that allows people and markets to promote well being which may result in very different ways of organising markets and free trade? The term free trade actually hides a historical imperative to be able to invest surplus capital internationally and for those countries with surplus capital to grow their economies and this has antecedents in any civil society that produces surplus usually in the expansion of boundaries. Clearly the best current example of this is the US at the vanguard of globalisation and free trade and the question of free trade is who is it actually free for and is it in the best interests of all participants? The historian AJP Taylor discusses the mobilisation of US capital post the second world war as the start of this monetary trend and, irrespective of the political and other motivations, it has created powerful forces that have become institutionalised through trade agreements and flows of international capital, goods, and services.

The typical economic analysis is that freedom of movement creates win-win situations aiding the development of economies and societies through creating new wealth and innovation, however it is wise to question these assumptions and to try and test them objectively in some ways according to other principles. In a a very brief conversation with Marc Faber (a well known investor and market commentator) I asked whether there was something better than the free market to organise wealth and well being and his answer was not socialism. This polarisation of view without testing assumptions and looking openly without conviction at other possibilities, in my experience, puts on the blinkers and generates an intense political charge around one sided ‘isms’, ideologues and fundamental positions that are shades of the same colour. It would be naïve to say that we are operating in a world with vested interests, bargaining positions and short term cycles and this does put strong constraints on the negotiating table.

As a recent student of ecology and organisational change, I believe that there are some objective tests of what a well ordered political economy should be delivering and looking at the data you can see the widening gap between ‘rich and poor’ in the most developed countries as wealth seems to ‘trickle up’ in to more concentrated pockets whilst government balance sheets strain under the cost of welfare. At the global level there is plenty of evidence to suggest that growing economies are not delivering increased levels of welfare. In fact they point to the reverse: after a certain point wealth seem to diminish welfare.

The debate of whether we should be ‘inside or outside’ the EU, in my view. depends on intentions and motivations and whether it is serving a particular group of political interests. I would like it to be more a question of how to open the conversation at all levels. It is not, in my view, healthy for a democratic elite to shape the agenda and the likelihood is that this debate will be just another example of short term and cyclical politics. Personally, I doubt that it will make a real difference to governance and welfare: the risks are skewed to the downside of executing and making it happen with all the potential for unintended consequences, which a fragile system of governance is not well equipped to handle.

Paul Pizzala

You may care to visit Paul’s blog/

Conflict or consensus in UK politics?

As some of you no doubt now know, we have returned to the bone which, as Team UK, we have been gnawing at for some time. In simple terms, having come to the conclusion that the governance of the UK is no longer fit for purpose, what now?

We struggled – and we failed. Then someone pointed out that we were doing the same thing as everyone else: we were trying to find policies to meet what we thought would be the right thing for the UK. That obviously raises a question: who are we to think that we know what is right for the UK? Clearly, we don’t and so we realised that the next step (really a step backwards) should be to see whether or not there could be created a group of people who, regardless of their traditional party loyalties, could agree – by way of a start – on what we should be aiming to achieve.

That led on to the idea that there should be a number of “core aspirations” which were generally not controversial so that most people (or so we thought) would be happy to agree on the aims of those aspirations. Then, having built up a group whose members are prepared to work together to approach the problem of creating policies to match our aspirations (which would, of course, take us from simplistic generalisations to more detailed objectives) we would have a wide range of inputs and, hopefully, gradually come to a consensus on proposed action that was acceptable (as a minimum) by the majority.

Not so. We have started to fall at the first hurdle – agreement on those nine core aspirations. We have received some responses – in part through the poll that we put on Team UK’s blog site, in part with discussions on Facebook and in part from email exchanges.

Let’s start at the beginning. Here are the nine core aspirations with the results of the polls (bearing in mind this is day 4 so do not expect high numbers yet):-

1. To create an educational, training and employment culture in which all have the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Votes: 9 in favour: 0 against.

2. To create an economic model where stability, sustainability and the mental and emotional well being of the people are as important as growth.

Votes: 8 in favour: 0 against.

3. To create a culture in which small businesses (the key to the provision of employment) can flourish.

Votes: 7 in favour: 1 against.

4. To reduce dependence on imported energy to a minimum.

Votes: 9 in favour: 0 against.

5. To reduce dependence on imported foodstuffs to a minimum.

Votes: 9 in favour: 1 against.

6. To create a social culture in which communities thrive on self-help and reduce their reliance on centralised state benefits.

Votes: 8 in favour: 1 against.

7. To reduce the gap in living standards between the richest and the poorest.

Votes: 9 in favour: 1 against.

8. To ensure that the weak and vulnerable are cared for in a proper and fitting manner.

Votes: 9 in favour: 1 against.

9. To ensure that the nation’s assets (natural and man-made) are properly maintained and improved.

Votes: 10 in favour: 1 against.

What I find interesting is that clearly 10 people have voted so there are a number of abstentions. What is revolting (to me) is that there is 1 out of the 10 (10%) who do not want the wealth gap to close and, even worse, do not want to see the weak and vulnerable properly looked after.

Still, we may be onto something: those in favour are in the clear majority at the moment. We shall see what happens during the coming weeks.

Then there were also two responses to which I want to respond. We have been accused of being too vague in the first aspiration on the basis that young people have a wide range of potential and so the aspiration is meaningless. I would not accept that: it is because young people have such a wide range of potential that we believe there is a need to rethink how we prepare them for adulthood and – although this is somewhat off piste – how we put things right if they reach adulthood without the required preparation.

The other suggests that our society is divided in many ways (agreed) and particularly by class where their differences are irreconcilable. Now, I may have completely misunderstood what lies behind that comment but to me it spells ongoing, never ending conflict. I just have to hope that this is not true.

Sure, we are all people who are better at hating than at loving, better at killing than at healing and generally pretty damn unpleasant (which is how we have come to rule the globe) but surely, after the carnage of the 20th century and the appalling conflicts (that word again) in so many different parts of the world today we, living in one of the best countries in which to live (where even the poorest are far better off than many in other countries), could try to head towards some sort of consensus, couldn’t we?

If the answer is “no” then everything that I have tried to do over the last forty or so years has been a complete and utter waste of time.

Incidentally, if you want to record your vote on the Team UK blog site, please CLICK HERE.

Back to school for some of the NEETS: but for what sort of learning?

Rodney Willett:

This is one of those subjects where some extremely radical thinking is needed – thinking which is usually rejected both by the DoE and the unions. Grrr.

Originally posted on rethinking education, economy and society:

070228_bored_students_02New Government figures (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/lowest-rate-of-young-people-neet-for-20-years) show the number of 16-18 year old NEETS at the lowest level for 20 years with a drop of a fifth over the last year. 81% of the age group were in education or work based training at the end of 2013 (70% in full-time school or college). The reduction in NEETS coincides with the raising of the ‘participation rate’ rather than reflecting an increase in the number working –ONS  statistics for Feb to April 2014 showed only 85 000 of the quarter of a million 16 and 17 year olds who have left full-time education have found work. Apprenticeship participation also continues to be very low,– figures (https://radicaledbks.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/apprenticeships2.pdf)  showing only 71 000 starts by those under 19 and less than 6% of 16-18 year olds in ‘work-based’ learning. In fact , even before the raising of the participation age, as the…

View original 318 more words