Scotland – and Edinburgh – needs to keep on campaigning to save the Green Investment Bank

 

One of the undoubted successes for Edinburgh achieved by effective campaigning was the decision to establish the headquarters of the Green Investment Bank (GIB) in Edinburgh.

Like all successful initiatives, the GIB was claimed as an achievement across the political spectrum. Vince Cable announced it for the Coalition government, but David Cameron was also keen to claim as it a ‘green’ achievement for his government. In fact, the person who should take the initial credit was Alistair Darling, who announced the government’s intention to launch the GIB in 2009, confirmed in a 2010 budget.

It is true that the decision to locate it in Edinburgh was taken under the Coalition; but that decision followed a genuinely cross party and cross community campaign for that to happen. In the House of Commons, it was led jointly by myself along with the former LibDem MP for Edinburgh West, Mike Crockart. We had strong support from Alistair Darling as former Chancellor, but also from SNP MSPs, and (quietly) from some Tories who recognised Edinburgh’s strengths. The City Council gave a great deal of support to the campaign, as did Edinburgh’s business community, and environmental NGOs.

That’s why I have been surprised and not a little disappointed by the relatively lacklustre campaign there has been in response from Scotland to the way that the current government is planning to sell off the GIB. To be fair, the SNP government has strongly criticised the proposals, and the SNP finance spokesman has raised the issue in the Commons on more than one occasion. But if you look at Hansard, you will see that the most vociferous and persistent opposition has come from Labour front benchers like Clive Lewis and Kevin Brennan, along with the Green’s Caroline Lucas. And elsewhere, it has been former Coalition ministers like the Tory Greg Barker and LibDem Vice Cable who have been at the forefront of the campaign. I am particularly surprised at the low key opposition that we have seen from Edinburgh’s parliamentary representatives, given that myself and Mike Crockart made the case for the GIB to come to Edinburgh month after month. As far as I can tell from Hansard, very few MPs from Edinburgh have said anything in Parliament about the threat to the GIB. UPDATE – since I wrote this blog yesterday, an Urgent Question was asked in the House of Commons today (11 January) at the request of Caroline Lucas MP. I am pleased to see that as well as Labour and SNP front bench spokespersons, two Edinburgh MPs  (Ian Murray and Joanna Cherry) intervened powerfully in that session as did a number of other Scottish MPs, including George Kerevan from East Lothian.

What needs to be emphasised is that it is not just the privatisation of the GIB that is the problem, but even more the type of privatisation that now appears to be under way. Ex-Tory Minister Lord Barker has talked of asset stripping. It certainly seems to me that the GIB is at real risk of turning from the pioneering investor in and partner of both environmental business and local government, into a simple investment bank with only a green veneer. One consequence of that is that the knowledge and support of green enterprise which the GIB has been able to display will disappear, and its role as an active intervener to support green business in Scotland will also be diminished. That will inevitably risk also the GIB’s ability to bring together green finance and green entrepreneurship, and reduce Edinburgh’s role as a leader in both those fields.

So I close with a plea to Scotland and Edinburgh’s representatives, particularly those at Westminster: please keep making the case against the UK government’s privatisation plans. And the City Council needs to speak up as well, and the Scottish Government keep up its critique of the government’s plans. All the signs are that there is a lot of Parliamentary scepticism, not just from the opposition parties, about the plans for the GIB. And now is the time to do it, before the government make a final decision on the sell off.

For a good summary of the current position with the GIB sell off, see here https://www.theguardian.com/business/nils-pratley-on-finance/2017/jan/09/green-investment-bank-sale-theresa-may-macquarie

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EU citizens must keep the right to vote


©Debating Europe 2017
©Debating Europe 2017
This article was first published in NewEuropeans.net  on 5 January 2017: see here: https://neweuropeans.net/article/1655/eu-citizens-must-keep-right-vote

Many EU citizens living in the UK have expressed their concern about their right to continue to live and work here when and if Brexit goes ahead. They may be less concerned about whether they will continue to have a right to vote in the UK after Brexit, but this is nevertheless one of the many issues which may come to affect EU residents over the next few months.

At present, citizens of other EU countries residing in the UK have a right to vote here for local elections, and also for elections to the devolved parliament and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This right was introduced because of the UK’s obligations under EU law. It is, however, a right which is now established in the UK’s own domestic legislation, in section 4 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. That means that even after the UK leaves the EU, these voting rights for EU citizens resident in the UK will continue unless legislation is passed by the UK Parliament to remove those rights.

In my view, EU citizens who reside in this country should be able to continue to participate in civic life, and voting is one of the important founding blocks of citizenship. It may be that no one will suggest that they be deprived of that voice after Brexit. However, given that there are some politicians and media who are prepared to whip up hostility against EU residents in the UK, I certainly don’t think we can rule out the possibility that such an attempt to disenfranchise EU citizens will be made from some quarters.

If that were to happen, that would contribute further to the insecurity many EU citizens now have about their position within the UK. On the other hand, a firm declaration by the UK government that EU citizens will still have the same voting rights after Brexit as they do now would be a valuable gesture to show that they are valued as members of our society, who are able to take a full part in the civic life of our country. It should be borne in mind that these voting rights for EU residents in the UK does not include the right to vote for the UK Parliament itself. That is unless those EU residents are nationals of Ireland, Cyprus and Malta; because under our voting rules, Irish and Commonwealth citizens are allowed not just to vote, but also stand, in UK elections at all levels, including UK Parliamentary elections. I have no objection to that, indeed I welcome the fact that Irish and Commonwealth citizens have those rights; but it would be another hammer blow to EU nationals in our country who do reside here after Brexit if they were to lose their vote even if they have lived here for more than 40 years – whereas a newly arrived Commonwealth citizen could acquire the right to vote and stand in all UK elections within a few weeks of coming here.

So I urge the UK government to make a clear declaration, here and now, that it will continue to allow EU citizens residing in the UK the right to vote on the same basis as they can now. And I hope that the Scottish Government will do the same, as the Scottish Parliament will shortly have transferred to it the powers to decide who is eligible to vote for local elections in Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament. I hope that such declarations would be supported on a cross-party basis, and even by Brexit-supporting MPs who want to see EU citizens making their contribution to our economy, our public services, and our communities.

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Scotland’s Place in Europe?

The publication of the Scottish Government’s options for Scotland’s relations with Europe post-Brexit drew predictable responses, not least within Scottish Labour. Although Kezia Dugdale wisely responded that by saying she would consider the proposals carefully, some of the more gung-ho Labour commentators and bloggers immediately damned the proposals as yet another cunning plan by the SNP to force Scotland on to the high road to a second independence referendum. So what should we make of the Scottish Government’s analysis and proposals for Scotland in Europe?

The first thing anyone should do is actually read what the document it says. It is true that the First Minister says that her preferred option is for an independent Scotland within the EU. Is anyone surprised at that? It was hardly a secret. But the possibility of a second independence referendum is way down on the list of the options. Her stated preference is that Scotland and the UK remain as full members of the EU. I agree with that. The next best option is for the entire UK to remain within the European Economic Area, the EEA. I agree with that too. It is only if those two options are rejected that the option of a Scotland-only membership of the EEA is proposed in the Scottish Government document.

Now, I still hope that the UK as a whole comes to its senses and decides to remain in the EU. And, if not, I see no reason why there could not be a majority in the UK Parliament for EEA membership for the UK as a whole. That could happen if it was backed by UK Labour – a combination of Labour, SNP, LibDem, SDLP, Green and pro-Europe Tory MPs could have a clear majority for that. But the Scottish Government cannot be criticised for looking at the options if that doesn’t happen – indeed, it would rightly be criticised if it did not.

So are the Scottish Government’s proposals for Scotland-only membership feasible? Their adoption would certainly be challenging. However, I believe that their model could work. One of the difficulties of trying to set up an arrangement where Scotland tried to stay in the EU and the UK, even where the rest of the UK left, would be that as the EU is a union of sovereign member states, it would seem inconceivable that the EU would let Scotland, as a non-sovereign state, be a member. However, members of the EEA do not participate in the EU decision-making and legislative structures. Furthermore, any EEA-type agreement for Scotland would have to be negotiated separately, and therefore make it more possible to take into account the special features of Scotland’s relationships with both the EU and the rest of the UK.

One undoubted area of difficulty for the Scottish Government’s proposals is how to deal with trade with the rest of the UK, if Scotland was to enter into an EEA-style relationship with the EU. Their proposals make it clear that they would want Scotland to remain in a customs union and single market with the rest of the UK. Their document make a number of suggestions as how this can be achieved in practical terms. These are not entirely convincing, and any such arrangements would need to be developed carefully if there was not to be a ‘hard border’ between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Equally, however, the solutions proposed are not outlandish, and it would be wrong to caricature the proposals as meaning Scotland would be turning its back on the UK single market if it tried to stay in the European single market. It certainly seems to me that the problems have the potential of being overcome if the political will was there.

And that, of course, is the nub of the matter. Are the Scottish Government’s proposals politically possible? What I say to that is at a time of fundamental threats to Europe, surely we cannot rule out the possibility of a flexibility within the EU to keep Scotland in as close as possible relationship even if that mean new structures to achieve that would need to be developed. It is also the case that Scottish Labour, in spite of its relative current weakness, could help make the difference between success and failure for an EEA option for Scotland. That is because support from Scottish Labour for such an option could help persuade the UK Labour Party to support it. And support from UK Labour could mean that, in turn, other social democratic and socialist forces within the rest of the EU – still a powerful force – would be persuaded to take such proposals seriously, and make their achievement more possible.

Now, some of the more excitable voices in Scottish Labour have suggested I am naïve in being prepared to take the Scottish government’s proposals seriously. Nicola Sturgeon has only put them forward in the knowledge they will be rejected, it is suggested, and that when that happens it will give her more powerful ammunition for a second independence referendum. That might be a fair criticism if the proposals were outrageously absurd. But the response from neutral and informed commentators (see, for example, http://www.europeanfutures.ed.ac.uk/article-4490) is that they are certainly worth examining. If they are workable, they would certainly be a lot better for Scotland than being outside the EU, or the UK – or both.

And Scottish Labour would stand in much better stead with the voters if it shows that it is prepared to take a constructive approach to the Scottish Government’s proposals in their paper than if it is seen to adopt a position of knee-jerk negativity. I urge Kezia Dugdale to take the bold step of giving support in principle to the proposal of an EEA option for Scotland, if the UK as a whole leaves the EU and the EEA. That does not stop her from continuing to make clear that she would not support a second independence referendum. Such a position would reflect the views of Scottish Labour supporters and voters, who are overwhelmingly in favour of Scotland being in both the Europe and the UK.

(First published in http://www.labourhame.com on 22nd December 2016)

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Moving towards a federal UK?

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A day is a long time in EU politics

Not surprisingly, many commentators have simplified Sunday’s votes as meaning Austria: pro-EU and good; Italy: anti-EU and bad. I draw different conclusions from these results.

First, all the reports suggest that the biggest factors in the Italian referendum were anti-government feeling, coupled with concerns about the nature of the constitutional changes proposed by (former) premier Matteo Renzi. Fears about those changes may well have been well-founded. They were criticised for seeking to place more power in the hands of the premier and the government; an accurate criticism, given their stated intention  was to allow Italian governments to operate more effectively.

The reforms included endorsement of the electoral system giving the largest party a ‘super majority’ of seats to ensure ‘stable government’, so that if the largest party received more than 40% of the votes cast, it would be guaranteed a minimum of 54% of the seats in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. Although a system of this nature was first introduced in 2005 (and is under constitutional challenge), its effect is at present limited by the powers of the Senate (upper house). The proposed reform would have substantially reduced the powers of the Senate and the influence of the Regions, and so markedly increased the ability of a party with minority electoral support to get its way. From a UK perspective we can see the downside of an electoral system which gives governments with minority support a majority of seats in parliament (whether Westminster or Holyrood).

It would have been ironical, as well as dangerous, if the changes proposed by Renzi had resulted in a future populist government getting elected in Italy with a strong majority of seats, but with minority support. Given the rise in backing for the populist “Five Star Movement”, it is by no means inconceivable that an election could have brought them to overall power in that way. It is noticeable that opposition to the changes came not just from the populist and racist parties in Italy, but also from many politicians with impeccable democratic and European credentials.

The real significance of Italy’s referendum is not its immediate impact on the country’s membership of the EU or the Euro, but on the consequences that a weakened government would have in making it harder for it to deal with major problems such as the banking and refugee crises, which in turn could (in the case of banking) weaken the single currency and place further tension on European structures. Renzi’s departure is likely to have an impact also because it will remove a powerful voice in European policy making.

So, although the Italian referendum vote should not be seen as primarily an anti-EU vote, it may nevertheless trigger consequences which will be damaging for the future prospects of the EU.

On the other hand, the result of the presidential election in Austria, was undoubtedly good news for those who support the EU and liberal values. The new president campaigned as a political leader who was up-front about support for the EU; for green policies; for refugees and human rights; and against nationalism. It is probable that not all those voted for him supported all his policies – after all, he only won a little over 20% in the first round of the elections. No doubt many did so for the simple and laudable reason that they did not want a far-right candidate to be their president.  The fact that they did so, however, shows that the onward march of right-wing populism is not inevitable nor unstoppable, and politicians who make a stand against it can be elected.

What should also not be overlooked, however, was the reason Van der Bellen became the united standard bearer against the far-right was that the established parties of the left and right did so badly in the first round of the presidential elections. His victory should certainly not be seen as an encouragement of those, in the UK and EU as a whole just as much as Austria, who hope that politics does not need radical change.

Ironically, it might also be much too early to write off Renzi, or at least his reforms. The need for reforms of the Italian state is obvious. If he had not made the vote one of confidence in himself, there might have been a different result. And if the Five Star Movement performs badly in the management of the major cities which it has gained in recent municipal elections, as certainly seems to be the case in Rome, perhaps in due course some version of Renzi’s proposals for reform might be implemented, and voters turn back to his centre-left party (which is still – just – in the lead in the polls).

(First published in http://www.sceptical.scot on 6th December 2016)

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Why Scottish Labour should oppose the triggering of Article 50

The result of the European referendum posed an immediate dilemma for those, like myself, who believe that the best future for Scotland is to remain in both the European Union and the union with the rest of the UK. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people started searching for options which would allow Scotland to remain in both the EU and the UK, even if the rest of the UK left the EU.

One of those who searched for such an option was Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, who went as far as to announce she had asked Labour’s Lord Falconer to look at possible arrangements.

It is clear that any such option of staying in both unions, even if the rest of the UK goes for Brexit, has now been rejected by Scottish Labour’s leadership. That is the only conclusion that can be reached from the decision by its MSPs a couple of weeks to reject the option of Scotland staying in the single market if the rest of the UK did not.

That decision is understandable, given that all the research done since the referendum has made it clear that there are no politically feasible options to allow Scotland to remain in the EU if the rest of the UK leaves, other than for Scotland to become a sovereign state (or as nearly sovereign as makes no real difference).

So, if Scottish Labour wants Scotland to stay in both the UK and the EU, the only practical way of achieving that is for the entire UK to remain in the EU.

And the inevitable conclusion if that is what Scottish Labour wants, then its elected representatives should vote against the triggering of Article 50 to give notice of the UK terminating its membership of the EU.

If Scottish Labour takes that position, we can anticipate that the Brexiteers will start shouting and complaining that would be to reject the democratic mandate of the referendum on June 23rd. The obvious answer to such a charge, of course, is that if Labour, both in Scotland and the rest of the UK, believes that the UK is now a partnership of equals, then there is nothing wrong in saying that fundamental constitutional change cannot be triggered by part of the UK alone.

To say that is not to take a nationalist position, but rather to recognise that it is normal in a state which is federal in nature (as the UK is now in many respects) for amendments to its fundamental constitutional arrangements to require much more than a simple majority across the state as a whole. In the USA, for example, constitutional amendments require two-thirds majorities, and approval by three-quarters of states. Most other states with federal or devolved constitutional arrangements have similar requirements.

So I urge Scottish Labour’s MP and MSPs to vote against the UK triggering Article 50, and in so doing reflect the choice of a clear majority of voters in Scotland.

I know that some in Scottish Labour might fear that to take such a line would ‘play into the hands of the SNP’: to which I suggest that if Scottish Labour doesn’t take a stand against the triggering of Article 50, that will certainly be used by the SNP to attack Labour, and provide a useful distraction for it from the fact that more SNP voters voted for Brexit than did Labour voters in Scotland.

Others might say that a vote against triggering Article 50 would be pointless, as the UK Parliament will vote for it anyway. To which I say that we have seen so many unexpected events over the last few months, nothing can be ruled out. Even if article 50 is eventually triggered by the UK Parliament, evidence that there are voices in Labour that are not prepared to allow the small minority of extreme Brexiteers who have taken over the government to go unanswered, will make it much more possible to build a majority in Parliament to keep close links with our European friends in the negotiations that will then take place.

Every day brings new evidence of the damage that the rush to Brexit is doing to our economy, our international standing, and our social cohesion. Now is not the time to be silent as the Brexiteers would like, but to speak up even more strongly.

(First published on http://www.labourhame.com on 29 November 2016)

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