English Votes for English Laws makes sense, so long as you don’t actually think about it

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Welsh polling station

It’s not always easy to work out what is or is not an English vote.

So it became appar­ent sur­pris­ingly quickly that the Union side of the Scottish ref­er­en­dum had no Plan A for if they won. The pan­icked offer given to Scotland has stirred up the demand for EVEL, English Votes for English Laws. EVEL is inter­est­ing because it high­lights the prob­lems there are with the union. The basic demand, for English rep­res­ent­a­tion for English-only affairs, is utterly reas­on­able. The prob­lem is that no one really knows what the rela­tion­ship is between England the UK.

There are a few prob­lems with EVEL in prac­tice. For a start it might be very dif­fi­cult to find an English-only law for EVEL to apply. Roughly, fund­ing for the Celtic nations in the UK is per­cent­age of fund­ing for England. If £100 is spent in England then Scotland is alloc­ated £6, Wales and Northern Ireland £3 each, as a very rough approx­im­a­tion. That money is a grant from Westminster and the devolved par­lia­ments decide how to spend it. But for England the budget for a ser­vice is alloc­ated dir­ectly from Westminster. So here’s a hypo­thet­ical problem:

The gov­ern­ment decides to abol­ish dir­ect pub­lic fund­ing for the NHS in England. Instead they set up a scheme for per­sonal insur­ance with some tax cred­its for the poor, so NHS fund­ing is cut from the pub­lic purse. Health is devolved so Celtic nations make their own arrange­ments, and can con­tinue to pub­licly fund the ser­vice if they wish. Should Celtic MPs get a vote?
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It’s a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. It really shouldn’t be.

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Today is a chance for major con­sti­tu­tional change in the UK. If ‘yes’ wins, then the res­ult would be a shock for both sides. Given the choice Devo-Max, Scotland would stay in the UK. A party with one MP in Scotland decided this couldn’t be an option as it would be a win for the oppos­i­tion, so it’s a gamble all or nothing.

Roulette wheel with ball in thirteen slot

Cameron’s Scottish Policy. Photo: BigStockPhoto.

There’s vari­ous reas­ons it’s come to this, but one is that there is no pro­vi­sion for pain­less con­sti­tu­tional change in the UK. This is stupid.

The unwrit­ten con­sti­tu­tion of the UK is a mish-mash of arrange­ments built over hun­dreds of years. The idea that some­thing that worked a couple of cen­tur­ies ago should be immut­able is simply ridicu­lous. Communications, edu­ca­tion, soci­ety have all changed. We are gov­erned in a sys­tem which haven’t con­sen­ted to and have little legal oppor­tun­ity to change unless someone can man­u­fac­ture a crisis. So we let prob­lems fester till we lurch from one place to another.

Plaid Cymru are ask­ing for ideas to gov­ern Wales. I have one, but I’d be happy for any party to take it up for the UK. It’s this: There should be a con­sti­tu­tional con­fer­ence every 25 years.

Too fre­quent and the rules become a free for all, but too infre­quent and there’s no gradual evol­u­tion of the state and every change becomes a trauma. Twenty-five years is up for dis­cus­sion but it’s close enough that a reas­on­ably young adult could have hope of being con­sul­ted on their par­ti­cip­a­tion in a demo­cracy. It also means that there is (rel­at­ively) recent pre­ced­ent so the next con­fer­ence isn’t a com­plete shock to the polit­ical body.

Moving fun­da­mental polit­ical ques­tions, like con­stitu­ency sizes, how often should gen­eral elec­tions be, how to the mem­ber coun­tries relate to the UK, onto a sched­uled basis would remove them from being laid down by an ad-hocracy.

Whatever the res­ult today, it’s the pay­off of a massive gamble by David Cameron who’s put everything on Red (White and Blue) and is hop­ing the right num­ber comes up. There’s got to be a bet­ter way to man­age a con­sti­tu­tion than that.

In the UK? Science (might) need You!

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This week I finally met my local MP for the first time. If I’d been on the ball I’d even have got a photo to prove it, but it’s just as well I didn’t as I was hav­ing an ill day, so I would have simply looked sick and sweaty next to him. Instead here’s some concept art you can pre­tend sym­bol­ises polit­ics and science.

Back off, it's SCIENCE. Photo: BigStockPhoto.

Back off, it’s SCIENCE. Photo: BigStockPhoto.

The reason I was meet­ing him was an inter­view for the Evidence Information Service. I first heard of this back in March and thought I ought to do some­thing about it. The idea is that while the civil ser­vice and par­lia­ment­ary research­ers can do a good job, they’re not experts on everything. It wouldn’t be sane to expect them to be. The Evidence Information Service is a pro­posal that there could be a sys­tem to provide MPs with expert advice on top­ics. The first step for such a ser­vice would be work­ing out what MPs want and what they could use.

This is where you and I come in.

The EIS is look­ing for local cham­pi­ons to inter­view their MPs (and AMs if you live in Wales). There’s a ques­tion­naire to see what it is that MPs are look­ing for. They already have plenty of people lin­ing up to give them inform­a­tion. Is there a way that sci­ent­ists can con­trib­ute more sig­nal than noise?

This obvi­ously isn’t March. I was busy at the time and things like this tend to get put off into the to-do list and then for­got­ten as more stuff gets added. The spur to sign up and get it done came via Kevin Folta. In par­tic­u­lar the first image in this post.

It’s not reas­on­able to assume MPs and AMs will pick up my dis­ap­proval of poor sci­ence through some kind of psychic osmosis. There are many reas­ons why fringe ideas might get pushed. Sincere belief and mis­un­der­stand­ing is one. Another reason might be eco­nomic interest. Taking a small step to counter-balance this seemed more pro­duct­ive to me than put­ting an X in a box every five years, as a polit­ical action.

As it hap­pens it was a reas­on­ably pain­less exer­cise. The EIS provided a basic ques­tion­naire, and Roger Williams made time for me at the local con­stitu­ency office. As it hap­pens Brecon and Radnorshire is the largest con­stitu­ency out­side Scotland in the UK, so local was a bit farther for me that it might be for you, but it was simple enough.

I can’t say what he said, as the res­ults are going to be anonymised. But I did find him and his office very open and help­ful. It’s a reminder of what a bad advert for MPs the House of Commons is. I cer­tainly learned some things about how Politics works that made my head spin.

If you are keen for bet­ter sci­ence in polit­ics, then it’s worth check­ing out the EIS wel­come let­ter and see­ing if you live in a con­stitu­ency without a local cham­pion. If mys­ti­cism in Westminster makes you grumpy, then you can at least be sat­is­fied you’ve done your bit.

Is ‘No’ campaigning to a London audience?

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It cer­tainly was yes­ter­day, with Michael Gove among the people cam­paign­ing against Scottish inde­pend­ence in London. It might be an example of where the Unionists have mis­un­der­stood both the oppos­i­tion and their own campaign.

The ‘No’ cam­paign is a cam­paign against nation­al­ism. It’s a cam­paign against quite a dated idea of nation­al­ism. One of the suc­cesses of Scotland is that they have built a civic nation­al­ism, so eth­nic minor­it­ies aren’t excluded from being Scottish in the way that they seem to be excluded (or avoid­ing) being English in England. No doubt there are some Anglophobes vot­ing to get rid of the English, but that’s nowhere near enough to account for the pop­ular­ity of the Yes side. What inde­pend­ence offers is John Major’s catch­phrase sub­si­di­ar­ity. It moves decision mak­ing down loc­ally from a dis­tant gov­ern­ment to admin­is­tra­tion that has to sit in the mess it makes. Defence and for­eign policy could be made at the UK level, but given we work within the EU and NATO there is some­thing to be said for cut­ting out Westminster as the middle-man.

If the UK gov­ern­ment had offered Devo-max, then there’s little doubt that would have won the ref­er­en­dum. The inab­il­ity of Westminster to see it is prob­lem in the UK that caus­ing it so much trouble. Another prob­lem No has is that it cam­paigns against itself. The form of nation­al­ism they’re against is, in a dif­fer­ent col­our, the form of nation­al­ism they cling to.

It’s dif­fi­cult call­ing reas­on­able people British nation­al­ists, because the phrase is so closely asso­ci­ated with being a mem­ber of the BNP (a fas­cist party, for non-UK people). However, when Cameron made his plea for the union, wrapped in the flag at the velo­drome, he was being a nation­al­ist. When Ed Miliband briefly flir­ted with the idea of post­ing bor­der guards at Hadrian’s Wall, it was the act of a nation­al­ist. That rally in London yes­ter­day with Clegg and Gove? It’s nation­al­ist.

Not only that, but it’s the dated form of nation­al­ism that the SNP and Plaid Cymru have been mov­ing from. The SNP and PC both want to man­age most policy loc­ally. Defence and for­eign policy might be more dif­fi­cult, but these are nego­ti­ated with the EU and NATO. Westminster isn’t going to uni­lat­er­ally solve prob­lems like Ukraine. So if eco­nomy and justice can be man­aged loc­ally, Westminster looks like an unne­ces­sary middle­man. It’s an inter­na­tion­al­ist nation­al­ism that makes Unionist appeals to people liv­ing on the same island look a bit tired and parochial.

However, the Unionists haven’t con­sidered tak­ing the inde­pend­ence move­ment ser­i­ously till very recently, because they thought it impossible. If they weren’t react­ing to the Yes cam­paign then what were they geared to fight?

I’m won­der­ing if the refusal to offer ser­i­ous powers on the bal­lot wasn’t about Scotland, but about the other devolved powers. More power to Scotland, and to the Welsh Assembly, would inev­it­ably lead to renewed calls for devol­u­tion in England. What powers would the London Assembly, and other regional assem­blies, have? Whatever was ceded to Scotland could be deman­ded by London, and the greater the inde­pend­ence for London, the more dif­fi­cult life becomes for the national gov­ern­ment in Westminster. I don’t think there’s a con­scious anti-regions cam­paign in Westminster, but a long held desire to accu­mu­late power in the centre. It wasn’t enough for Westminster to win the vote, they wanted to con­cede as little as possible.

This is not a plan.

Even now, work­ing out the rela­tion­ship between England and the UK is being left to the fringe. The Barnett Formula the three lead­ers have pledged to uphold was a quick fix in for 1979. Scottish and Welsh devolved cham­bers came in 1999. There’s still no reform of the House of Lords bey­ond the 1999 bodge. For all the com­plaints that Salmond has no plan B, no leader of the big three parties has a Plan A for the Union if they win.

Win or lose, the Unionists need rethink how demo­cracy works in the ®UK and that will mean mov­ing out­side cent­ral London.

Valerian

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For a minute Rudolph McMurdo had been wor­ried. He was hardly old. At the age of eighty-two he was still a year short of another media mag­nate, and his own news empire sup­plied him with the best health care money could buy. Yet he had been warned by med­ics that he had car­diac prob­lems and the crush­ing pain in his chest had felt like the end. It wasn’t entirely com­fort­ing to real­ise it was. At least he had the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing his demise proved he wasn’t has heart­less as the smug bas­tards in the lib­eral media claimed. Nevertheless, it was cruel that death had finally come on his hon­ey­moon night with his fourth and pre­sum­ably final wife.

It was a sense of injustice over this that gave him an anchor in this new place. It was hard to tell exactly where he was. It was black, but well lit — though from no vis­ible source. It cer­tainly wasn’t dark. He could see him­self well enough, a curs­ory exam­in­a­tion of the back of his hand revealed the usual mottled. That was another thing someone would have to sort out. If he was dead then there was no need for him to be old.

The noise from behind was quiet, but was the only sound in the oth­er­wise silent place. Rudolph spun round in sur­prise. Some dis­tance away an old man in what may have been a robe, or pos­sibly a toga, was sham­bling towards him. His gait was hindered by the need to avoid his over­grown beard that could have slipped beneath his feet as he walked. His head was stooped, like the most fas­cin­at­ing things in the world were his toe­nails. The image was everything Rudolph asso­ci­ated with reli­gious nut­ters. Christ! You can’t even escape the bleed­ers in the after­life. The man seemed to be mut­ter­ing to him­self. As the fig­ure got closer it wasn’t what Rudolph had expected.

…and then someone says ‘let’s have some religiously-inspired gen­o­cide.’ It would be nice if, just once, they thought of the poor sods who have to pro­cess every­one after­wards. I told him ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and ‘Turn the other cheek’ were too ambigu­ous, but would he listen? Ooof!”

The final syl­lable punc­tu­ated the man’s col­li­sion with a fas­cin­ated Rudolph. The man looked up and into Rudolph’s face with benign incom­pre­hen­sion. Rudolph waved his hand in front of the man. “Hello? D’yer work here?” Rudolph asked.
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The uncommonly decent politics of reburial

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To add a little con­text to the pre­vi­ous post: I’ve taken a course in short story writ­ing, and Silencing the Echo might have been an entry for a short story com­pet­i­tion in Wales — but I decided against enter­ing it.

The inspir­a­tion comes from a druid who cam­paigned for reburial of pre­his­toric remains in the UK. Avebury, I think. Reburial was, he said, a mat­ter of “com­mon decency”. As phrases go, it’s a good one. It taps into the British sense of decency and reas­on­able­ness. Or at least it does at first.

When it keeps com­ing up again and again it loses the feel­ing of a sin­cere spon­tan­eous state­ment and starts look­ing like a sound­bite. Looked at closely, it gives away the intol­er­ant nature of some of the campaigners.

Imagine we’re on oppos­ite sides, and I’m cam­paign­ing for com­mon decency. What does this make you? I sup­pose it could make you uncom­monly decent, but the insinu­ation is a moral fail­ing rather than simply a mat­ter of dis­agree­ment, and when the same tag is used over and over then it looks less like an accident.

An unques­tioned assump­tion is that reburial is what the per­son bur­ied would wish for. This is not cer­tain.
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