Must do better, UK

Whatever the outcome of Scotland’s independence referendum, we should all be shocked at the magnitude of the Yes vote. Surely we should never expect more than a few percent of any population to wish to renounce their citizenship due to dissatisfaction with their government and country, and opt instead for some smaller, weaker, largely untested and unknown alternative. That around half of a population may wish to do this might be expected in Iraq or Syria, but not in one of the more stable, peaceful, prosperous and free parts of the world.

How, then, has it come to this? Yes, there was a positive alternative on offer, albeit each positive implying a failure of the UK to do – even to be capable of doing – the right thing. Yes, it is easy to whip up an us V them mood, to constantly portray fellow Scots who disagree as agents of England. We can do that in Yorkshire too, but don’t seem to be able to seriously threaten the existence of the UK (or of the Former UK Except Scotland, if applicable), though Yorkshire gets a worse deal from London than Scotland does. And I get the sense that Scotland would like the power to raise spending without raising taxes, and yes Yorkshire would like that too, as would everybody else in the world, including the UK government.

If the UK can be blamed for all our problems, and struggles to achieve a majority, what chance does the EU have when that is put to a referendum? Because everything the SNP blames on England, somebody in England will blame on Brussels. With just as tiny a chance of being right.

I suppose it is reasonable to believe that everything any government does is bad. All the news is, by definition, bad news. Oppositions have nothing good to say, and attribute every fault they find or invent to the basest of motives and that’s just kind of their job. Ministers try to put another side to the story, but even their supporters are not that interested, after all good news is boring. Who wouldn’t conclude that changing the colours of the rosettes would make no difference, and that only anti politics expresses the necessary outrage, even to the extent of destroying our country.

But surely politics is similar elsewhere in the free world, albeit perhaps its negativity can be balanced by pledges of allegiance, peculiar languages and other unifying memes which I would instinctively resist. The UK doesn’t do identity so well as some and identity is a country’s positive spin.

But most of all the UK needs to do better on substance. And I don’t mean just constitutional reform – the UK needs to do better in a much wider sense. Investing in the future. Driving down unemployment even faster. Tackling social exclusion. Public services that are answerable to the people who use them. Peace, reform and liberation. A stronger economy in a fairer society. That might even be good enough for Yorkshire.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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24 Comments

  • Tsar Nicolas 19th Sep '14 - 2:51am

    Doesn’t Nick Clegg bear a great deal of responsibility ?

  • Joe Otten — you and I do not always instantly agree on everything. But I find myself drawn to the sentences at the end of what you have written. “……Driving down unemployment even faster. Tackling social exclusion. Public services that are answerable to the people who use them. Peace, reform and liberation. ”
    These are good objectives. I could add some more but I will stick with these for the purpose of discussiom, they would be an major improvement on the mediocre Clegg’s Centre Party by stealth ideas.

    On the domestic front these objectives will not, and indeed cannot, be achieved by a small state, cutting of public services and support for the poor.
    Declaring “..Driving down unemployment even faster. and Tackling social exclusion” as key objectives might actually attract back some of those activists and voters who have been spurned since the Clegg Coup. So long as we mean it.

    Tackling social social exclusion cannot be done by free market, small state smoke and mirrors.
    It requires using the power of the state in a Liberal Democrat way to liberate people from unemployment and poverty and alienation. It requires a recognition that using the power of the state is not some sort of taboo socialism, or even taboo social democracy, but is consistent with many of the interventionist actioms of Liberals such as Lloyd George and even Gladstone. Check out Gladstone’s record in government on public works and the free state provision of education. His personal desire to nationalise the railways is very relevant today when our coalition governent seems hell bent on re-privatising the EastCoast Line despite the profits and success it has achieved in state hands.

    “Peace, reform and liberation” is not just a slogan or the words in a good song. If we are serious about “peace” we cannot allow a repeat of the sort of mentality in government that resulted in the bombing of Libya. Whatever one thought of the then dictator (and I was certainly not a fan), his regime was stable and the country was prosperous, peaceful and in time may have evolved into something better. Then our government with a Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister decided (despitenthe harsh austerity at home) that we had plentyof cash and military resources to bomb Libya into democracy. Three years later Libya is a dangerous chaotic place, with an economy in tatters
    and democracy is further away than ever.

    Then in September 2013 our government was at the last minute stopped by Parliament from trying to bomb Assad’s Syria into democracy in support of the Salafist insurgents.
    Now in 2014 our government, instead of arming and funding the Salafists in Syria amd Iraq want to bomb them instead. In twelve months our government policy has gone from being Assad’s worst enemy to being his best chance of survival.
    Our Deputy Prime Minister could make a clear and unequivocal statement that our party will not support any further military adventures.

  • Don’t forget many British people do in fact aquire another nationality-Australian, Canadian etc. Often our best and brightest.

  • @Tsar Nicolas – I would have to say the government deserve credit for calling the Scots’ bluff. After decades of calling us colonisers and oppressors it turns out they want to stay. Time to build a UK based on fairness and abolish the Barnett formula.

  • @Richard S – Don’t be too smug. How long the Scots will want to stay depends on delivering on the promises, the EU exit threat and the general well-being of the UK. we all have a lot to do in the coming years.

  • Tsar Nicolas 19th Sep '14 - 8:42am

    @Richard S

    But aren’t you even the tiniest bit disturbed that 1.5 million British citizens just voted to leave the UK?

  • Richard S – proof of that assertion, please!

  • Tsar, nothing I said is specific to this government.

    John, what makes you think Clegg or this government are following a small state agenda? Public spending is more of the economy than it ever was under Blair.

  • Time for a Federal UK. An English Parliament would be just as, or maybe even more, dominated by the interests of London and the South East. We need English regional assemblies with equivalent powers to those of the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliaments.

  • Matt (Bristol) 19th Sep '14 - 11:08am

    “That around half of a population may wish to do this might be expected in Iraq or Syria, but not in one of the more stable, peaceful, prosperous and free parts of the world”

    Don’t agree; free society enables the possibility of imagining other worlds. This is a somewhat pejorative assessment of the situation. It also studiously and wilfully ignores Spain.

    Another way of answering this point is that this referendum is the unfinished business of the 19th Century – many Western, broadly democratic multi-nation states (Sweden-Norway, Holland-Belgium, Austria-Hungary) experienced secessions (many of them peaceful) which were mainly achieved by the 1920s, when the process pretty much stalled. Ourselves and Spain are the last states (pretty much) in Europe to attempt to hold within a larger polity a significantly distinct historic entity defined in ‘national’ terms (I don’t count Bavaria at this stage).

    You also assume the economic properity is the answer to anything – if we have it, we won’t want to rock the boat. I think this is the attitude that almost lost the Scottish Referendum.

  • A word of caution. English regional assemblies with the same powers Wales have would achieve what? Wales has (rightly or wrongly) protected itself against some of the public service policies emanating from Westminster over the last 15 years. But it is perhaps the poorest geographic region of Britain. The idea that decentralising power is some kind of fix-all solution to Britain’s problems are ludicrous. We’ve also got to remember that given the fiscal transfers from South to North/West going on right now, asking those regions to me more self-reliant could have a devastating effect on their economies and services.

    We need new economic thinking (or even a return to old i.e Keynesian thinking). The Chicago school has done so much damage over the last 35 years. A great many people are economically disenfranchised and simply devolving power locally won’t mean diddily squat. Just look at Wales.

  • Joe Otten 19th Sep ’14 – 9:20am
    John, what makes you think Clegg or this government are following a small state agenda? Public spending is more of the economy than it ever was under Blair.

    Joe,
    I agree that this government overspends. It spends far too much on Trident, it spent far too much on bombing Libya, it spends too much on the Royal Family, it spends too much on maintaining embassies and ambassadors all over the world when this could be a shared EU function, it spends too much on having an over centralised bureaucracy housed in London in some of the most expensive office accommodation in the world rather than moving those jobs to the regions and at a stroke saving money and boosting regional economies, it spends too much on housing benefit instead of building council houses which would be cheaper and provide a better standard of accommodation, it spends too much on the illnesses caused by obesity instead of taking on their food industry, it spends too much on subsidising the nuclear power industry using taxpayers money clean up their toxic mess.
    I could go on but I know you don’t like long rants. 🙂

    As for Clegg, I am currently re-reading the bookm’The Clegg Coup’. It makes clear that he and the clique around him believe in a small state as a fundamental matter of faith, despite the evidence that such an approach only works for the advantage of the few not the many.

  • Matt (Bristol) 19th Sep '14 - 12:58pm

    Joe, I think I was ignoring the historic diveristy of many states mainly for reasons of expediency and lack of time; in my nod towards Bavaria I was trying to indicate that there are some historic bodies that can call / have called themselves separate ‘nations’ which are happily integrated within larger states currently.

    But thakyou for recognising that Scotland’s desire for autonomy / separation is not as much of an historic anomaly for a ‘Western’ nation as your original piece contends.

  • @Igor S – or alternatively we could stop apologising for being English and stop bribing people to stay with us who don’t see themselves as the same nationality as us and wouldn’t stay on any other basis. They’ll be gone in 25 years whatever we do.

  • If a mainstream party doesn’t offer English voters financial equality a non-mainstream one will.

  • @Joe Otten:
    ” I was at a meeting once where a speaker insisted on speaking a united Nordic hybrid language”
    Do you remember who the speaker was, or what he called his hybrid language?

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '14 - 7:58pm

    Joe Otten

    John, what makes you think Clegg or this government are following a small state agenda? Public spending is more of the economy than it ever was under Blair.

    As I have said, many, many times, there are strong demographic forces pushing public spending up even if the level of service remains the same. By ignoring this obvious point, and pretending that it’s some wish to have a “big state” that’s pushing it up, you are showing yourself up as one of these extremist right-wing ideologues. It is VERY obvious to most ordinary people that the level of service the state is providing is being drastically cut. If you can’t see that, well, same as in my second sentence above.

    Of course the reality is that many of these cuts being forced through just don’t work, they just cause more unhappiness and misery which results in fire-fighting expenditure having to take place later. So, no, it’s no through love of a the “big state”. It’s because the small-state fanaticism ideologically-driven policies don’t work.

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Sep '14 - 10:30pm

    Joe Otten – ‘the government hasn’t shrunk the public sector to match its reduced revenues, or reduced it even further as a small state ideologue would, but actually raised tax rates overall (and particularly on the top 10% of earners) in order to maintain some of the extra public spending as a proportion of GDP that happened in 2008.’

    Well….

    I suggest a reading of this: http://budgetresponsibility.org.uk/wordpress/docs/WorkingPaper7a.pdf

    Paragraph 1.19 says, ‘Adjusting for whole economy inflation, on these plans real per capita spending on public services would be cut by 23 per cent between 2007-08 and 2018-19, while real per capita GDP increases by 3½ per cent. This would reduce spending on public services and administration probably to its lowest share of GDP at least since 1948 – and on some data the lowest since 1938. That said, adjusted for the (highly uncertain) estimate of inflation in government consumption in the National Accounts, real per capita spending on public services would still be twice as high as in 1948 and perhaps only at its lowest since 2003.’

    Also, paragraph 1.20 – ‘By the time that the budget is balanced again, receipts and spending would both be around
    38 per cent of GDP. As it happens, this is very similar to their levels when the budget was last close to balance in 2001-02. But the composition of public spending will look very different – around 4 per cent of GDP more on welfare, debt interest and other annually managed expenditure broadly offset by less on public services and capital spending.’

    So put another way, some people have been utterly clobbered, and some get triple-locks rained down like rose-petals. So when you say that the public sector has not shrunk it is a bit disingenuous isn’t it, because for a lot of people out there it most certainly has. What you think about the policy of ringfencing sacred cows is another matter, and I will leave that to your value judgment. But with respect to your original assertion, surely the composition of spend is a relevant factor?

  • John, much of what you say, I agree with, but I think I need to clarify two points:

    “Embassies and ambassadors all over the world when this could be a shared EU function,”

    First, like all departments, the FCO has suffered massive cuts and now staffs most of its Embassies with individuals from the host nation.

    Second, love or hate the civil service overall, the FCO is one of our country’s best assets and makes far more money for this country than it costs to maintain. Labour closed many Embassies and it had massive negative repossessions on our relations with the countries where this happened. This affected our business, trade and political capital in those countries and now costs us more in the money we have to waste trying to rebuild and maintain our relations in those countries than it would have done to just maintain our Embassies there. (Especially after cost cutting it is applied.)

    This is not to say it is perfect, functions such as UKBA have clearly struggled to perform their roles, but overall, I think the FCO has been one of the reasons the UK has been able to maintain a presence on the international stage and we – as Liberals – should not wish that away lightly.

    As for a joined EU effort. Well, I agree that we should work better with the EU, but I would guess that many civil servants – especially those working for the FCO in the EU – wish that, as well, if for no other reason than it would make their lives easier. However, even if a combined effort on the scale you are asking for were possible, it would not desirable, even to a Europhile, such as myself. The EU still lacks the unified and coherence voice required for this – something only compounded by the fact that 22 of its members do not even have a foreign policy. There are areas, such as negotiations over climate change and trade agreements with regions like China and the USA, where a joined up effort with the EU is not only desired, but mandatory; however, this does not mean we should just scrape our own foreign policy altogether. I do hope a day comes when Europe has such a unified voice as to mean that we can fully combined our collective might, but that day is not yet.

    “It spends too much on having an over centralised bureaucracy housed in London in some of the most expensive office accommodation in the world.”

    I agreed that we are over centralised, but in terms of expense, the civil service has seen massive cuts in the numbers of staff in London, with most of its work now located outside of central London/London. Plus more is moving outside of London everyday. So, I feel it is unfair to make out that the Government is not tackling that issue.

    Do not get me wrong, much of what you say, I agree with.

  • Libera l Al

    Thanks for your comment which I am guessing is informed by personal knowledge. What you say is entirely reasonable and I may have over-egged that the embassy point. The actual saving would be trivial compared to the savings on say Trident or realising the property value of MOD land acquired in the 1940s and sitting unused for decades. But I am shocked that we maintain an Embassy in Paris where the ambassador’s residence is on the scale of a National Trust Home. Paris is easier to get to from London than Glasgow, Newcastle or Plymouth.

    You highlight the cuts that have been made in the civil service and you are absolutely right to do so. You could have also mentioned the fact that civil servants have not had a pay rise for five years forcing down their standard of living whilst the bankers who caused the crisis and were bailed out by the taxpayer continue to pay themselves obscene bonuses. The vast majority of civil servants are on modest salaries. The proportion earning more than £40k per year is small,man’s there are a large number who earn less than £30k.

  • @John, I can certainly appreciate the point about things such as maintaining the Embassy in Paris and I agree with much of what you say. As Matthew said, just because the ‘Small State’ concept does not work and this Government is not very good at it does not mean that the Tories and (sadly) some Lib Dem MPs do not wholeheartedly believe in it.

    You are also correct about my experience: due to having family members who are public sector workers, I do have some experience of it (and bias in favour of it), which means I know the Public Sector is not the rose garden it is made out to be. Nor is it as wasteful as the private sector on many occasions (see WCM and NHS privatisation). This is why I get so upset and flustered when you hear people badmonthing public sector ‘fat cats’ (not that I think you were doing this, more a UKipper/Tory love-in) as if a few ill-thought out Tory roles (ironic PCCs for reference) are the norm and every Public Sector worker is a failed parliamentarian trying to jump on to the gravy train. Most, in my experience, are just normal hardworking people trying to do difficult jobs in the hope they can make the world a little better.

    It is why I can appreciate the point about their pay: my mother was a administrative worker in the NHS for over 20 years and never earned more than £18,000. By the end of this Government’s reforms, she was on about £14,000, but told she should be thankful she still had a job. I am not trying to demean the problems of others, of course, and know there are many in much worse conditions. That is part of the reason why I try not to raise that point about pay too much because Public Sector workers are often treated unfairly, but I this is the same for many people outside the public sector and I think it is just because they are considered by the elite to be plebs just as much as everyone else.

  • @Tsar Nicholas

    Nick Clegg is a particularly bad leader!

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