Friday, 30 December 2011


The news that 205,000 people have moved to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK within the past four years should be a wake-up call to those who doubted the success of devolution. It's also a sign of things to come, and a warning that we need to act now to develop policies for integration so we can make room for these people, benefit from their skills, and avoid related social problems.

To some of you living in other parts of the world, 205,000 may not seem like that big a number – but bear in mind that Scotland's total population is just five and a quarter million. Scotland has big cities – Glasgow and Edinburgh – but large parts of it are virtually empty, popular with tourists as one of Europe's last remaining wildernesses. In many ways this small population is its biggest strength. Not only does it have ample natural resources, it's really well represented in terms of politicians per constituent. Whilst Westminster increasingly flounders under the weight of the work it has to process, Scotland is a country where things can actually get done, where it's easier for parliamentary activity to keep pace with social change. Individuals have more chance of getting their problems noticed and it's easer for them to contribute their ideas.

Of course, whilst people are coming into Scotland, others are leaving. Nevertheless, net inward migration has risen steeply over the last decade and as far as our relationship with the rest of the UK is concerned, immigration has consistently outpaced emigration during that period. Furthermore, whilst population growth may not be as dramatic as those initial figures suggest, immigration creates its own particular issues, not all of which are tied to population growth itself.

With a birth rate below replacement rate, Scotland has, over the last few decades, been notably more welcoming to immigrants than other parts of the UK. We should be taking lessons from other areas, however, in how easily that can change. Immigration is particularly hard on low-skilled people who already struggle to find employment. If we are to avoid the tensions that have resulted from this elsewhere, we need to (a) concentrate on boosting this part of the economy (not as hard as it might sound in a recession, when building homes and infrastructure can be a good way to kick-start growth), and (b) ensure that incomers are well distributed across the country, avoiding a build-up of people competing for the same jobs in already deprived areas. We need to understand incomers in the same way we understand tourists and effectively market different parts of the country to them, helping them to make informed choices about the available options rather than just being drawn to the bright lights.

Scotland has a particular advantage when it comes to English immigration given the disparity in house prices north and south of the border. It's always easier to relocate if one has money; if one sells a house in England and buys one in Scotland one will have money left over. Of course most people doing this will still be weighed down by mortgages, but they should nevertheless see their disposable income rise, and we need to encourage them to invest that in Scottish businesses as well as spending it on Scottish goods. This financial gain will be important in balancing the initial outlay on integration.

There is one other sizeable group of people moving, or thinking of moving, to Scotland, and that's long term sick and disabled people. Scotland's free personal care has long been attractive to those south of the border, and coupled with the fact that changes in the UK's support system look likely to be resisted up here, it's creating a situation in which many people feel they can't afford not to move. This may worry some Scots, given the potential cost of providing support for a larger disabled population, but it shouldn't need to. Most disabled people can work if they have the right support, whilst others can make different types of contribution to society. The key is to make work more accessible so that support costs are balanced out, if not exceeded, by the tax revenue generated by working disabled people. This is relatively easy to do if approached as a serious social and economic infrastructure project. Making it more tempting for business to take on disabled employees who work from home, for instance, can make a big difference. If the state steps in more quickly to help with the costs of sickness absence (rather than repaying money months later) and if regulations ensure new office buildings have better disabled access, we can all gain not only from the work of disabled incomers but also from an enhanced contribution from our existing disabled citizens.

One thing all immigrants have in common is initiative, and settling in a new country often goes along with a desire to contribute, to make oneself a part of it. Scotland as a nation needs to engage with that. Many of those now arriving are long-absent Scots or have family here and are excited by the emerging sense of nationhood. Others are among those traditionally seen as the old enemy, but want to be part of what's happening here. We need to make sure they're not seen as invaders and act now so this process can provide opportunities for everyone, including Scotland's long term poor. That means we need to start national conversation on the matter now, not wait until we begin to feel overwhelmed.

NOTE: Thanks to Kate Higgins for succesfully clearing up a problem with the stats I originally used in this article. I've amended it accordingly but am leaving it in place because I still think the trend is significant and the issues I've raised here need to be addressed.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Values, Virtues and Votes

David Cameron's recent comments on religion seem, on the surface, to be among the silliest of his reign. So what do they really mean, who are they really for, and what is their likely consequence?

First of all, let's deal with the comments themselves. Britain is a Christian nation, he says. Well, that's debatable. The British Social Attitudes Survey of 2001 found that 48% of Britons considered themselves to belong to one religion or another, and this number has declined ever since until, in 2009, the number of people identifying as Christian fell, for the first time, below the number of those identifying as non-religious. Interestingly, a YouGov poll conducted last April found that 55% percent identified as Christian and 40% as non-religious, but that if the question was framed differently – are you very religious or not really/not at all? - then only 35% fell into the former category (across all religions) with 63% in the latter one. Only 11% said that they attended a religious service once a month or more. And of course, there are many other religious groups in Britain besides Christians – at least 3% of the population is Muslim and 1% Hindu, with smaller but not insignificant groups of Jews, Sikhs and Buddhists (it's hard to get an accurate figure for those who follow Pagan religions because their self-descriptions are so varied and quite a few surveys exclude them altogether).

It might therefore be fairest to say that around half the British population is notionally Christian but that a significantly smaller percentage is actively so, with many people rejecting or ignoring the organised aspects of their religion.

In these circumstances, arguing that Britain is a Christian nation is likely to make a majority of people feel uncomfortable, excluded or outright insulted. A nation cannot be labelled as belonging to a particular religious group on the basis of a first past the post system (no matter what the new rulers of Tunis might like to believe). Britain is plainly a secular country where lots of different religious interests (and the interests of those who are not religious) need to be taken into account. And secularism has served Britain well – in fact, it serves everyone well. Rates of violent crime are lower in secular countries; whilst this may be seen as correlated to stages of development, it's no reason to turn our backs on an approach that's working well. Secularity does not, as various researchers have shown, reduce the risk of a nation being violent to others, but it does reduce rates of religious hate crime within that country. It promotes an ideology of respect between religious groups and individuals. It also, interestingly, correlates to lower rates of domestic violence and unprotected sex, and to higher rates of self-reported happiness.

78% of those participating the YouGov poll mentioned above said they think religion has no place in politics. Religious neutrality among politicians is art of how we protect our secular culture, as Tony Blair understood when he chose to try and separate his Catholic values from what he perceived as his ethical duties to the electorate. But if Christianity is an inappropriate thing for a prime minister to focus on, what about Christian values? Can't most of us agree that, for instance, compassion, good neighbourliness, honesty and abstention from violence are virtues worth aspiring to?

I think most of us can. The trouble is, can David Cameron? Many would contend that his recent reductions in support for disabled people, for example, leave him looking a little short on the compassion front; and he really stumbles when it comes to the rejection of usury. He must know that advocating Christian values in this context risks making him look like a hypocrite or, at best, a buffoon, in the eyes of a large part of the population. So why do it?

Does he really believe it? If so, he's kept remarkably quiet about it until now. Is he seeking political advantage? There lies the rub.

Cameron is nothing if not an opportunist, and he knows full well that when he says “Christian values” some of us think of the Bible but many more of us snap back to thinking of Margaret Thatcher's moral crusade, of the red top social virtues that have, even very recently, led certain newspaper editors to declare that they would not vote for MPs who cheated on their wives (presumably, given the politics of their papers, they're quite happy to vote for MPs who fiddle their expenses). This is a world where sex is the true sin and, especially, sex that other people are having – undesirable other people like the gays whose side Cameron simultaneously insists he is on. This is, quite simply, a tactic aimed at creating loyalty in particular groups of voters by reinforcing the myth of the pernicious other that has so often driven people into the arms of the right. Calling Britain a Christian nation is an excuse for seeking to drive out those who are not like us, and talking about Christian values perpetuates the notion that some among us are really other.

His couldn't be much further away from the ideals of the majority of Christians, but it plays well, and Cameron knows it. It impacts at an emotional level before people have really thought it through. The thing is, it doesn't impact the same way on everyone. Consequently, there is always the danger of a backlash, as when Gordon Brown foolish blustered about British jobs for British workers. So it's a risky move and it's one which, to be successful, must impact on a particular group of (swing) voters at just the right time. Women – especially mothers – are more likely to hold religious values than men, so this could be an attempt to win back unhappy female voters. It's also worth noting that, outside Scotland, people in urban areas are less religious than those living in the countryside. We can map this against areas where the Tories need to solidify their support and the picture starts to look interesting. This is a call to the heartlands – a test, perhaps, to see if wayward voters who have flirted with the LibDems or been seduced by New Labour are now ready to return to the fold.

The question is, why test now? Why take risks now with strategies only likely to work in the short term? If Westminster rumours are true, Cameron and Osborne have been discussing the prospect of a March election. It would be a big gamble; with jilted LibDems unlikely to return to the fold and the Eurosceptic bounce unlikely to provide a sustained bounce, it might well pave the way to minority government (if not outright failure). At any rate, Cameron will probably watch the odds for a while longer before he decides whether or not to make a move; but if he does then, even before an announcement, we can expect a few more audacious statements like this. It may be reaching the stage where we all need to decide just what kind of nation we want to live in.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Island Empire

Was David Cameron right to take the actions he did in Europe? It's fascinating that, superficially at least, everyone in politics is treating this as a matter of morality. In fact it's a prime example of moral (and even pragmatic) concerns being sacrificed for political expediency. So, once again, did David Cameron do the right thing?

In David Lynch's Inland Empire, tragic characters are doomed to repeat the actions of those in a film-within-a-film, a Polish tale called 47. The number 47 acquires ominous associations, eventually appearing on a door no-one wishes to pass through, like the portal to a latter-day Room 101. Bereft of his Polish allies (despite manifest compromises in the past), David Cameron, floundering at the gateway to Europe, is also afraid of the number 47. There are 47 MPs, it is reliably reported, who are definitely out for his blood. This is a magic number because it happens to represent 15.3% of the parliamentary party – just enough to force a leadership election which there is a very real chance he would lose.

Whilst this may come as a shock to some, those watching the Conservatives closely have observed the situation building for some time. Cameron rose to power because of his supreme blandness – he was the only man rival factions could agree on. He also seemed able to charm the public, to come across as a decent sort of chap who was ready to do away with troublesome aspects of the party's image. But these talents are very different from those required in a leader. Once established, Cameron appears to have thought that was sitting pretty. He liked power. He had less interest in government. Cheerfully delegating all the hard work (which is inevitably harder for a party without a majority), he developed a habit of clocking off early, of taking extended holidays as if he were an American president. Like any boss behaving that way, he swiftly lost goodwill. Add to this a willingness to ride roughshod over the concerns of the 1922 Committee and to try and ride out numerous political storms just by ignoring them, and it soon became evident that he was making more enemies than he could afford.

Cameron's big advantage was the coalition between his party and the LibDems. It was the perfect excuse for telling backbenchers he couldn't do everything the way they might like, particularly on Europe, where it is quietly rumoured that he holds personal views far more favourable than most in his party would tolerate. But whilst the coalition excuse bought off his own party for a while, it carried no weight with UKIP, who steadily grew like a leech on the Conservatives' shoulder, sucking away their constituency party members. This made the party faithful feel increasingly threatened. They had to do something.

And so we come back to the number 47, and Cameron's fateful decision to use his veto on the new EU fiscal arrangements. In return for staying in power he was prepared to sacrifice everything that made that power count for something. What he has done has not only cost him LibDem support (with Vince Cable reportedly threatening to resign) and placed the coalition in jeopardy, it has demonstrated to his backbenchers that they own him, body and soul. He is now little more than a puppet; it is no longer clear that he can even choose which tune to dance to.

And there's worse. Having superficially decreased the likelihood of his party giving him the boot, Cameron has made it more likely that his country will do so, one way or another. Because by replacing him, by disavowing his actions, Britain could go back to Europe and reopen negotiations from a stronger position than Cameron's original one. Having shown that it is possible for it to play its worst card, it could almost certainly negotiate a better deal – provided, of course, that the person at the helm had some guts.

What does all this mean? For the Conservatives, it's a triumph of party ideology over successful government, and in due course it may cost them dear. For the LibDems it looks humiliating, but if they're smart they'll keep Cameron on the run and extract a different set of prizes. At any rate, in the long term, they can only stand to benefit from the disintegration of the major political forces. That's why it's not actually a bad thing for them that UKIP are overtaking them in the polls (given that their own support is not yet actually shrinking beyond the levels it was at six months ago). UKIP may, in turn, be feeling very pleased with themselves, but their particular position makes it unlikely they'll go on to great things. They're a right wing SDP; they may rattle sabres, but when it comes to a general election they are neither distinctive nor rounded enough to gather much more than a protest vote.

Where this situation becomes really interesting is in relation to Scotland. Cameron's European antics have now created a situation in which the Scots potentially have much more to gain from independence than as the case before. There will be gaps in the market as England tears itself (and Wales and Northern Ireland) away from Europe; niches opening up which Scotland is perfectly positioned to exploit. Separate from England and close to the EU, Scotland could pick up the advantages England has dropped – and research suggests that when individual Scots finally make the big decision about how to vote in the independence referendum, the deciding issue will be money in their pockets. Because this isn't really about the niceties of international unions or who takes instructions from who. It isn't about great men and it isn't about party favours. It's the economy, stupid.