What if the voters say No?

19 07 2013

In about 14 months time I’ll be able to vote on whether or not I want the Scottish Parliament to separate from the English Parliament. I won’t be just me, of course, millions of Scots will have the same chance. If you are in England you won’t get that opportunity. It’s not like a marriage where both sides goes to relationship counselling and together decide on a separation. It’s more like us in Scotland deciding whether to leave you or not.

I might vote yes, as I tend to feel that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people who are affected by those decisions. I might vote no if I can be persuaded that the Scottish economy wouldn’t be sufficiently robust on its own. If I see many more comments on facebook like this one,”The majority of the yes bunch are morons that don’t have a clue. Majority are a bunch of racist muppets that don’t want to be associated with England”, I might just move to Canada.

I’m English, so it feels a bit odd to be voting on the future of Scotland. But since I have lived here for the past 25 years and have a Scottish son and intend to live out my days here, moving to Canada notwithstanding, it is actually a vote about my future and the way in which I wish to be governed and not about nationality.

One of the things that has emerged, particularly from those who don’t want independence for Scotland, is the feeling that October 2014 will look just the same for Scotland as August 2014.  It won’t. Nothing will stay the same, whether the vote is yes or no.  The very fact of holding the referendum is like beating egg whites. They are still egg whites at the end of the beating but they look a whole lot different. Scotland will still be Scotland but it will be a whole lot different.

In some ways considering the landscape is easier after a yes vote. All powers will be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. There will be discussions to be made, on Trident and the Pound amongst others, and agreements to be signed, but government will be from Holyrood and power will rest in Edinburgh.

But what if the vote is no. It will not mean carrying on with things in just the same way as we do now. Further powers will, in all likelihood, be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish MPs will still be elected to seats in the Westminster Parliament. Earlier this year the McKay Committee report concluded that MPs from Scottish constituencies should not be allowed to vote in Westminster Parliament on issues that affect only England and Wales. For example, Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote on matters affecting English Schools as the education systems are separate, and control over education in Scotland is already in powers devolved to Holyrood. This change would be supported by over 80% of English voters so it will be hard for the coalition, or any future Westminster Government to refuse it in the long-term.

On the face of it, fair enough, since English MPs cannot vote in Holyrood and, therefore, cannot have a say in how Scottish Schools are run why should Scottish MPs have an influence in matters concerning the English education system? But how will this change be handled and what effect will it have? The coalition is suggesting that any Bill that affects only England and Wales will have an extra reading. All MPs will be able to engage in the first three stages but in the final vote Scottish MPs will be excluded.

Again, this seems reasonable and fair at first glance but it will have the effect of creating two different types of MP. Since Scottish MPs would not have the right to vote on all Bills passing through Westminster they would become a second-class member and, since they would be unable to vote on all key issues, it would be unlikely that they could sit at the political top table, the Cabinet. And it also raises the question of who decides which pieces of legislation have impact in England only? Not every issue will be as clear-cut as education or the NHS.

And what about the Labour Party. It relies on the large number of Scottish Labour members that are returned to Westminster to form a majority government. It may very well be that Ed Milliband or his successor could become Prime Minister and have a majority of Labour members of parliament. But if the Scottish members were, in effect, non-voting members any changes he wanted to make could be blocked by English MPs. For example, imagine the Labour Party is elected with a decent majority in the house of some 40 MPs. Now imagine that they want to bring forward a Bill to reverse some of the education measures introduced by Michael Gove. Taken that in a majority Labour government there are likely to be over 50 Scottish MPs, none voting MPs when it comes to education issues, the overall majority of 40 is actually a working majority of -10. Labour will find its English legislation impossible to pass.

When I visit my parents in Cheshire they happily express the opinion, mainly as it is repeated endlessly in the Daily Mail, that England pays too much towards the upkeep of Scotland. My mum firmly believes that her taxes paid in England pay for my free prescriptions in Scotland. When they came up from England to meet me in Edinburgh at the end of a charity walk I completed there it was fun to point out on our way back to my home in Crieff that, thanks to her taxes, there is no longer a toll on the Forth Road Bridge.  Setting aside the vexed question of whether this is true or not, these perceptions mean that English voters are already tending towards the view that Scottish spending should come solely from taxes raised in Scotland.  But it is unlikely that it will go this far, rather that some sort of formula will remain in place to allocate monies to Scotland based upon UK Treasury spend. So the amount that the UK treasury decides to spend will still have an impact in Scotland.

I read a good explanation of how this works and it goes something like this; lets pretend that Holyrood is responsible for just three things and  treasury decides to cut funding for all three of these areas in England by 10%. In this instance the block grant to Scotland for provision of these services will be cut by 10%. If the treasury decides to cut just one of the areas by 10%, leaving the others unaltered, the block grant falls by 3.3%.  In each case it is up to the Holyrood parliament then decides whether to cut the service by an amount equal to the reduction in the block grant or to spread the deficit across the services or to make up the shortfall from elsewhere. This is the way the devolved administration works under a block grant system. The point here though is to see that decisions made in Westminster do affect services in Scotland. To put names to services, imagine they are NHS, education and policing. All devolved services. The treasury will put forward proposals for spending in these areas for England. Westminster MPs will debate the issue but Scottish MPs will be unable to vote as they are English matters. But these English matters do affect Scotland in terms of the allocation of block grant. Do you see the problem here? The relationship between England and Scotland will change from one where we pool our resources then ALL MPs decide how the spending is allocated to one where only English MPs decide on these key issues.

And surely it wouldn’t be too long before the parliament in Westminster started to wonder just what use these second-class Scottish MPs really were? Westminster will be acting as an English Parliament with Scotland having representation but no voting rights.  Perhaps at that point England would be looking to sever relations?

The situation post referendum will not be as it is now, in Scotland or in England. There is a lot of talk about what Scotland might look like after a Yes vote but the debate needs to widen so that there is a better understanding of how the political and constitutional landscape will change should the voters say No.

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Diversity – leading by example

3 06 2013

The3rdimagazine is a magazine that, historically, has looked at business issues from a woman’s perspective. While the focus has widened to include co-operative, social and collaborative enterprises and to examine alternative business and economic models it is entirely appropriate that the main issue when we consider diversity here to look at issues such as the representation of women on boards.

However an issue that needs addressing, and quickly, is the lack of diversity at the very top of government in the UK.

A government report published by former Labour Minister Alan Milburn found that while fee paying schools educate just 7% of pupils in the UK they account for;

  • 59% of cabinet ministers
  • 35% of MP’s
  • 45% of senior civil servants
  • 80% of Supreme Court Judges
  • 43% of barristers
  • 54% of leading journalists.

While children of wealthy families have far greater access to opportunity than children from poor families, in everything from gap year internships to ski-ing holidays, education is supposed to be a great leveller. It is supposed to work in allowing children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed and to compete with their more advantaged peers. It is supposed to create a level playing field. Yet what we now see is the ability to reach the top dictated by what Warren Buffet has called, ‘The Lucky Sperm Club’. Put less prosaically, a society where who your parents are, and then the school they can afford to send you to, is the critical factor in determining your future success.

The lack of diversity amongst our decision makers, with the Prime Minister, Mayor of London, Chief Whip and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, to name but a few, being former pupils of Eton College not only impairs social mobility and perpetuates inequality, it mitigates against diversity due, not least, to confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs. We all do it. I read newspaper articles and facebook posts and watch documentaries that are in line with my existing beliefs and opinions. Even when we do expose ourselves to alternative points of view, that too may be a form of confirmation bias; in that we seek to confirm that the opposition is, indeed, wrong.

Confirmation bias leads us when interviewing to chose candidates that are most like we are. Men are more likely to favour male candidates in the boardroom. This, not poor quality candidates or insufficient number of applicants, is the most likely factor that mitigates against getting more women into these senior positions. It is not necessary for confirmation bias to be conscious for it to work!

In her book, Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan argues that the biggest threats and dangers we face are the ones we don’t see – not because they’re secret or invisible, but because we’re willfully blind. We turn a blind eye in order to feel safe, to avoid conflict, to reduce anxiety and to protect prestige.

Both these phenomenon mitigate against increases in diversity. We chose to operate in ways which confirm our existing prejudices and we fail to see that which we choose not to see.

We know that confirmation bias exists so we must do what we can to work against our unconscious or subconscious prejudices. We know that we have a tendency to ignore issues that have the potential to cause conflict or unrest so we must do more to challenge existing structures and systems.

We must all lead by example when it comes to increasing diversity. In our businesses we need diversity. Board diversity helps provide balance to the maverick, testosterone fuelled decision-making processes that brought down the big four banks and other financial institutions. Employee engagement at all levels of the company, and yes at board level, would also be a major positive influence. What we need to create is an environment of rich cultural, gender and social diversity.

And what is true in businesses is just as true in our government. We need a more representative legislature; more women, more individuals who have experience in areas other than just politics and a very good place to start would be by employing fewer public schoolboys.