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Browsing posts in: UK Politics

Why I’m in favour of an independent Scotland

At the end of the televised Salmond-Darling debate I tweeted the following:

With 77 retweets so far, it seems to have struck a chord with some people. It also is an aspect of the independence debate that was only mentioned in passing in the televised clash, but for me it is absolutely central. How is Scotland going to be best governed? is the vital question in the referendum as I see it, and my answer would be it would be better governed from Edinburgh than from London, and hence – if I had a vote – I’d vote YES.

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The best bank for a small business in the UK – with emphasis on the Eurozone

bank-logosI’ve been partner in a small Limited Liability Partnership in the UK since 2009, and since the start getting our banking right has been a bit of a headache. We have a low turnover, but issue between 50 and 70 invoices a year, and many of those are paid from Eurozone countries. Both Jan and I, the partners in the company, travel a lot and are hence heavily reliant on distance banking – we cannot get to branches. Continue Reading

Sorry British Bankers’ Association – British influence in the EU has already fallen off a cliff, and it’s not to do with staff


Gergely Polner (@eurocrat on Twitter) normally knows his stuff about the EU. Sometime spokesperson for the Hungarian Presidency of the EU (still the best social media outreach by Presidency), then head of public affairs for the European Parliament in the UK, and now head of EU affairs for the British Bankers’ Association, he has written a piece entitled “Is British influence in Brussels about to fall off a cliff?” for Euractiv.

Sorry Gergely, but British influence in Brussels has already fallen off a cliff. And it has nothing to do with staffing. It is all to do with the political context of Britain’s EU relationship, and how that has soured since 2010, and especially since David Cameron promised an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership in January 2013, with the referendum to take place by 2017. Further cases, like the 2011 veto that stopped nothing, and threatening that the appointment of Juncker would hasten British exit, have not helped either.

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Non-legislative barriers to the EU Single Market in the UK


I was back in the UK for the first time in ages last week and was frustrated as a result of not being able to use two services I had grown to rely on – my Three Pay-as-you-go Data SIMcard, and Auto-TopUp for my Oyster Card.

What’s the problem? A postcode.

Yes, well, it’s a little more complicated that that, but that’s the essential issue. Both My3 and TfL’s Oyster online system oblige you, logically enough, to add an address to your profile. When you make a top-up this address is checked with the address listed for your card with the bank, and if that lookup fails, the payment fails. The problem is that while I still have a UK bank account, and hence an associated debit card and a credit card, the address associated with that account is in Germany*, and that address has a 5-figure ZIP code associated with it, rather than the UK’s 7 or 8 character postcode. Trying to enter a German address in either My3 or Oyster online fails, and if I leave my old UK address there then the payment fails instead.

Neither of the services above are contracts – if I were to disappear then the companies can just close the cards in question. Were it to be a contract for a phone then it would be different.

So the next time you hear some UK politician complaining that the European Commission is not doing enough to complete the Single Market, perhaps you can point them to this blog entry instead, and remind them that some UK services are not too hot at dealing with the EU Single Market as it is today.

* – note that some people have told me I should have kept an address in the UK precisely for this purpose, but that is actually fraudulent – I do not live in the UK any more, and I should not need to maintain a UK address to use a public transport electronic ticket or a Pay-as-you-go Data SIMcard.

What shock will finally break the cosy Westminster consensus?

ukipA friend on Facebook pointed me towards an article in GQ about the Wythenshawe & Sale East byelection. I’m not a regular GQ reader, but the headline – Running On Anger: on the campaign trail with UKIP - and the content of the piece are worth reading.

The tactics employed by UKIP are their normal ones at a byelection – work out where the discontent is to be found (in this case, with Labour), and then explain why their populist solutions are worth voting for, and if fear and bending of the facts help, then why not do that too? In essence in Wythenshawe and Sale East they hoover up the anti-politics vote, and they are effective at it.

The problem as I see it is that the British political system is uniquely badly placed to deal with a movement like UKIP. The party could get 15% or more at the 2015 General Election and still fail to gain any parliamentary representation, and 2nd-place finishes in byelections in Eastleigh, South Shields and Middlesbrough contribute to that impression – that the system is keeping UKIP out.

Now while I loathe more or less everything UKIP stands for, I am nevertheless, above all, a democrat – a party with that sort of base deserves parliamentary representation.

The reactions to UKIP’s rise are generally inadequate. Some complain that Farage in particular gains disproportionate media coverage for a party with no MPs, but for me this holds little weight as it’s the electoral system, rather than a lack of support, that keeps UKIP out. Other complain that UKIP has no answers to the political problems that the UK faces, and while I agree that this is the case, it is not as if the three main parties of the political mainstream in the UK have many ideas either.

It is this last part that merits further debate and analysis in the UK, and the analysis needs to go beyond the “they all look the same” or “none of them have experience outside the politics”.

Take, for example, Ed Miliband’s party conference announcement to cap energy prices. This was described as a “game changer” if you were on his side, or “the return of Red Ed” if you were not. Both responses are wrong. The policy would make a small change within the well established confines of the UK’s dysfunctional energy market, and that’s it. Putting it another way, Miliband was playing to the narrow audience composed of the Westminster political class – and that includes the vast majority of the journalists of the broadsheet press – but that class, and indeed the people that report on it, are increasingly missing the connection to the grassroots. This is the post-democracy that Colin Crouch has so compellingly and depressingly described. Representative democracy in the UK is becoming more and more hollowed out, a shell, but the system still protects the mainstream parties, for the moment at least.

So back then to UKIP, and Wythenshawe and Sale East. Part of me wonders what would happen if UKIP were to actually win there? How would the UK’s three main parties react? I fear the reaction would be turn up the critique of UKIP still further, rather than actually take a step back and better develop their own visions for the future of the UK.

Yet the Wythenshawe and Sale East case, this problem of pent-up anger in British politics, is not about to go away. Would a UKIP byelection victory be a big enough shock to the cosy Westminster consensus? Or would something larger – like Scottish independence, or leaving the EU – be needed to make a lasting change? Perhaps I am too pessimistic, but I fear something is going to have to break in UK politics before things start to get better.

Two levels of compromise, and the current dysfunction of British party politics

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 20.11.51I’ve lost track of the number of times people have defended the British First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system with the argument that because the system generally produces a clear winner (a majority for one party), the system hence avoids the need for the complicated coalition negotiations and trade-offs necessary in systems where coalition governments are the norm.

This is correct as far as it goes, but it is only half the picture. A consequence of FPTP is that the major parties of centre left (Labour) and centre right (Conservative) are themselves coalitions of more points of view than their equivalent parties in other European countries. The compromise to make the UK governable is hence within the political parties, rather than in coalition negotiations after an election.

This in turn makes parties in systems where coalitions are the norm (Germany for example) narrower from an ideological point of view, and inclined to look both ways – towards the left and the right (unless of course your party is of the extreme left or extreme right), rather than the UK tendency that is always to look for the electoral middle ground. This in turn, in non-FPTP countries, contributes to the feeling that membership of a political party might actually mean something to the party members, and may help to explain Britain’s extraordinarily low party political membership (when compared to other EU countries).

Add onto this the additional complication of British politics, namely a coalition government for the first time since 1945, and British politics currently has a double whammy – a grubby compromise within each of the parties, and a grubby compromise between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

So much for FPTP being a good thing for British politics, eh?

Britain’s Blind Faith in Intelligence Agencies – but why?

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 17.12.14Spiegel Online has an interesting article today in English entitled “Britain’s Blind Faith in Intelligence Agencies“. I agree with the title, and conclusion of the piece, but it poses one major question for me: why do the British have this blind faith? This issue has been on my mind a lot this week, and I spent hours discussing it in Berlin yesterday, but without any conclusive answers. So here are some possible reasons. I am not entirely convinced by any of them, and the list is by no means complete, but this issue needs to be discussed. So here’s a start.

1) Britain never had a dictatorship
Other countries have been ruled by dictatorships of one sort or another, and Germany suffered twice within a century, and one of those times was within living memory for most people. This means the British population is less sensitive to abuse of state power when it comes to surveillance than others are.

2) Britain’s constitutional traditions
The UK has no written Constitution, and while it is a signatory of the ECHR, the population has no deep knowledge of what is and is not acceptable from the state as a result. This sets the UK in contrast to France and Germany, and even the USA (with its Bill of Rights). A related point is Britain’s common law tradition, and its emphasis on presumption of innocence and the need for proof of guilt – meaning surveillance can possibly provide the evidence necessary.

3) Britain won World War II
This relates to point 1) above, and the argument runs that Alan Turing and his counterparts helped the UK win the war thanks to interception of communications, and breaking the Germans’ codes. GCHQ, formed in 1946 in its current guise, built upon this success, and hence surveillance is good.

4) Spies are heroes
What better known British film character is there than James Bond? A good spy. This runs deep in the national psyche.

5) Partial and skewed journalism
Britain’s major newspapers are heavily partial, and seldom shy away from campaigning for causes. In addition the newspaper industry is in financial dire straits, meaning the role of powerful owners is more marked than ever. This means that papers on the right of British politics are seldom willing to dig into abuses of power when it comes to security issues.

6) Relationship with the United States
The relationship with the USA is seldom called into question, and is termed the ‘special relationship’ by the British political classes. Whether the USA quite sees it the same way is open to question, but the impact of the USA’s development of its surveillance apparatus (especially after 2001) has had an impact on the UK.

7) Nationalism
Defending the nation and the ‘national interest’ from perceived threat is a strong line pushed by politicians of all colours, started particularly strongly by Thatcher and continued since then. If surveillance protects the nation then it is hence justifiable.

8) Northern Ireland
The UK suffered for a long time from a terrorist threat in part of its own territory, and the main Act used to detain David Miranda dates from 2000, and was drafted to deal with Northern Irish terrorism. This makes the insurgent threat more real for the British population, also further underlined by the London bombings in 2005.

9) Party politics
Over the past couple of decades neither Labour nor the Conservatives has been particularly liberal on civil liberties issues, and the Liberal Democrats have been too weak and too small to shape this agenda, and now they are in coalition with the Tories it is close to impossible. The UK election system means there are no other voices in parliament that can challenge the prevailing consensus.

9) The state is sclerotic narrative
Economically and politically Britain suffered from upheaval in the 1970s and 1980s, from economic shocks to the miners’ strike and riots in the 1980s. The response from Thatcher (who forged a consensus that has since been seldom challenged) was that the state was sclerotic and needed to be cut back, but that order needed to be maintained through the force of law and order, leading to the boom in CCTV in the UK.

10) Trust of the police
The notion that the police are there to help, and the police are not brutal enforcers of law and order still runs deep in the national psyche, even if plenty of evidence calls this faith into question. But the UK default is that authorities are on the side of the people.

Further thoughts and comments most welcome!

On Twitter, @guan has this thought:
Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 17.36.16
While I am personally not knowledgeable about le Carré, I nevertheless would think that his writing, with its moral ambiguity, would – if anything – increase the critique of surveillance!