Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Month: June, 2016

More Brexit Blues

A further consequence of Brexit is that an EU without the UK might rush further into centralisation. The UK at least acted as a sort of internal brake on the centripedal tendencies of the federalists.

As someone who is pro-EU, but who is at heart a localist democrat and intrinsically fearful of the centralisation of power, this saddens me. I voted Remain, I want to stay in the EU, and if the UK cannot stay in the EU then at least Scotland should.

But this doesn’t mean I want everything decided in Brussels. Far from it. Centralised government is inevitably bad, corrupt and arrogant government, and democracy works best on a smaller scale.

If the EU is to gain and sustain legitimacy, it has to put limits on its aspirations for further centralisation.The idea of ‘ever closer union’ is, frankly, almost as terrifying as the prospect of Brexit.

We need an EU that has limited competencies, and which is competent within that limited range. The member sates, whose governments are responsible to national parliaments, must be the main drivers of the EU. The principle of subsidiarity (making decisions as locally as possible subject to compatibility with the common good), hitherto much lauded but little practiced, must prevail.

But none of this can be contested for unless we are in it. Finding a way to stay in has to be the priority.

Whig Internationalists for Scottish Independence

“I was not pro-independence in the Scottish referendum. However, I think that the result on Friday makes it entirely acceptable that the First Minister explores all means to secure Scotland’s position in the EU. If that means that there is a second independence referendum then it will have my full support.” (Some guy on the internet, 2016)

Scotland entered into the Union in 1707 primarily in order to avoid geopolitical and economic isolation. The aim was to be part of a larger common market, with freedom of trade and travel, with all the opportunities that provided. We will leave the UK very soon for precisely the same reason.

In 2014, Scottish independence was primarily attractive to the social democratic left, who wanted less austerity, a more solidaristic set of domestic policies, and the protection of public services. Their main grievance against the UK was that it seemed to be governed by and for the rich. This approach was attractive to the working class, who had been disappointed by the anemic performance of Blair and Brown. But the middle class, if not unsympathetic, remained mostly unconvinced.

In 2016, Scottish independence has now become attractive, too, to the Whiggish, liberal-cosmopolitan, internationalist element. It is attractive to people with second homes in France. It is attractive to businesses who do business on the continent. This is a big shift. The potential exists for the formation of a broader coalition for independence in Europe, one that brings together both the Yessers of the optimistic left and the Remainers of the pragmatic liberal centre.

Yet the politicians who were active in the No campaign in 2014 are still haivering. Today in the Scottish Parliament, Willie Rennie said he wants Scotland to be in both the UK and EU. I’m sure many share that desire. But, perhaps sadly, he cannot have it both ways. Notions of a ‘reverse Denmark’ solution or a federal UK, as advanced by Kezia Dugdale, while not perhaps inconcievable in theory, are far fetched and impracticable.

It has become an either/or proposition.  We can have a Scotland in the UK, or in the EU, but not both. We have to choose. Scotland’s next referendum, if it comes to it, should make this choice explicitly clear. To my mind, the choice is not only stark, but obvious: civis europeus sum.

We Saw the Sea

I joined up at 21 wanting a place in an organisation that did things, changed things, fought battles, and trained its people well. What I found was a glorified rugby club with a passing interest in historical reenactment, limping from one cocktail party to the next in expensive, half-broken ships unlikely to ever be used for their intended military purpose. I found too many bitter, bullying senior officers who I had no wish to emulate or become. Happy for those who love it and have picked up stripes but not for a second do I regret leaving and moving on at the first opportunity.

At least two people that I joined the navy with have been promoted to commander. From what I remember and know of them, they richly deserve it and I’m genuinely pleased for them.

For a moment, though, I had a moment of reflective pause, accompanied by a small pang of something like jealousy: what if I had stayed in general service and not broken myself in submarines? Would that be me today?

Of course, the answer is almost certainly no. I wasn’t quite the world’s worst naval officer, but I wasn’t particularly gifted either. I could never quite fit in. If I had stayed in, at best I would probably have ended up as a dishelved and demoralised passed-over two-and-a-half getting drunk and depressed in the scruffs bar every night.

At least I had the presence of mind to realise this early enough, while there was still time to get out and do something else. I tell myself that submarines is what killed the navy for me, but actually the disillusionment set in before that. I remember one day sitting in a departmental meeting in Faslane. We were talking about washing machine contracts for base accommodation or something equally dull. I looked around the room at the two Lt Cdrs and I thought, ‘wow, in six or eight years I could, if I got lucky and played my cards right, be sitting in their chair’. Then I looked at the ‘Commander S’, and thought, ‘wow, in twelve years I could be sitting in his chair’. And I realised that I’d still be in the same room, having the same conversation, about the same things – more or less.

The prospect terrified me. I wanted, at that time, adventure, excitement and the sense of making a difference, and the reality was all so very dull and pointless. I remember then thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’ll be in 2016, but I’ll never be a Commander. I’ve got to get out of this and do something different with my life’.

And here I am now, as a constitutional academic and advisor,  and (for the most part) loving it. I no longer have to pretend to be something I’m not.

I neither regret joining the navy, nor leaving it. It was a great foundation and I learned a lot, but it wasn’t for me for the long haul. I think I’ve reached a place of so much peace with this, now, that I could probably read a Douglas Reeman novel and not want to spit.

Radical, Liberal and Conservative Constitutions

My copy of Roberto Gargarella’s ‘The Legal Foundations of Inequality: Constitutionalism in the Americas, 1776-1860’ has just arrived. I’ve read this book before, but only a borrowed copy. It’s easily the best study of the early development of constitutionalism in Latin America published in English (with the possible exception of Gargarella’s own subsequent work) and I wanted my own copy for reference.

Aside from its historical interest, the analytical value of the book lies in the unusual typology of constitutions it puts forward. Usually, constitutions are classified by their institutional forms: whether they are rigid or flexible, whether they have one or more legislative chambers, whether they are presidential, parliamentary or hybrid, and whether they are majoritarian, consociational or mixed – that sort of thing. But Gargarella classifies constitutions instead by their ideological intent, as ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’ or ‘radical’.

I’ve found this to be a very useful way of thinking about constitutions as more than legal-institutional documents; they are that, but they are also much more than that – they are also social and ideological documents. They speak not only of institutions and structures, but also of vision, purpose and identity – the ethos of the constitution. Two constitutions may have quite similar institutions, but a very different ethos.

A second Scottish Referendum

The Scotland Act 2016 is one of the strangest confections ever to have emerged from Westminster’s constitutional fudge factory. I am not concerned here with its matters of substance – its tax or welfare powers, for example – but with the elements of constitutional principle that it contains.

(1) By declaring that the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government are ‘permanent’ and that they are not to be abolished except by referendum, a modicum of symbolic constitutional entrenchment is recognised. This changes a key principle of devolution – that sovereignty is retained at Westminster, and that devolved institutions are mere creatures of the Westminster Parliament – and instead nods, although only very subtly, to a principle of, if not Scottish national sovereignty, at least guaranteed Scottish national rights to autonomy within a divided sovereignty.

(2) The requirement for a two-thirds majority vote in the Scottish Parliament to amend certain provisions concerning the electoral system in Scotland – which again provides an element of constitutional entrenchment. It introduces to Scots public law the notion of ‘protected subject matters’, recognising that some types of law are more fundamental than others, and they they ought to be protected from majoritarian change. (Moreover, the scope of ‘protected subject matters’ could be expanded in future to include other matters of constitutional significance, thereby providing a way and means towards ‘creeping constitutionalism’.)

(3) The recognition of the Sewel Convention does not formally rescind the right of the Westminster Parliament to legislate directly for Scotland, but it does blur the Diceyan distinction between law and convention, and makes it clear that an attempt by Westminster to legislate for Scotland in respect of a devolved matter would be an extraordinary act – and perhaps that to do so without a very good reason would be to undermine the whole basis of devolution.

(4) But, on the other hand, it gives to the Scottish Parliament a vast, sweeping and largely unchecked power to reconstitute itself – outside of the very limited set of ‘protected subject matters’ by Acts of the Scottish Parliament passed by an ordinary majority. Until now, the Scotland Act served as a quasi-constitution for Scotland, in that it was a higher law which it was not within the power of the Scottish Parliament to change; now it no longer serves that function, and so long as they don’t abolish the Parliament or change the electoral system, most of the institutional structure could be torn up or rearranged at will by an incumbent majority in Holyrood. I find that quite dangerous, and it would have been much better, from a constitutionalist point of view, if the Scotland Act itself had been a ‘protected subject matter’ and therefore capable of being amended only by a two-thirds majority.

After the failure of the 2014 independence referendum the window for ‘big bang’ holistic constitution-making seems to be closed (at least for now). The present trajectory is a more incremental approach towards constitutionalism, with the emergence of a fragmented, partially-written, semi-entrenched statutory framework that slowly builds the substance of a distinct Scottish constitutional order without the opportunity for fundamental nation-building. In other words, that Scotland’s current constitutional trajectory looks rather more like, say, New Zealand or Canada than Ireland or India.

The Scotland Act 2016 is demonstrative of this piecemeal, incrementalist approach. The problem with such ‘muddling through’ is that, while it seems to provide a patched solution to current problems, fundamental issues of nation building and state building are never satisfactorily addressed. What results is a mess, a pseudo-semi-constitution that evades more fundamental democratic reform. It’s like building a house without starting with the foundations.

Even without independence, we could have done much better than this. We could develop a new constitutional settlement, short of independence, with a status similar to that of Gibraltar – with Westminster having jurisdiction over foreign affairs, defence, citizenship and passports, but with autonomous home rule, grounded in our own written constitution, over everything else.This sort of constitutional settlement is what the SNP government should now be formulating, and this is what they should be putting to the people in a second referendum. Appetite for another referendum on independence may be muted, and support divided, but such a home rule settlement would, I am sure, win overwhelming support.

Of course, in the case of Brexit (please, Lord, no) all bets are off. Then independence will be the only option, and the sooner it comes the better.

How AMS/MMP Actually Works

The various elections taking place across the UK today (5 May 2016) use a total of five different electoral systems:

  • AMS/MMP for Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Assembly
  • STV for the Northern Ireland Assembly
  • Supplementary Vote for Mayors and Police Commissioners.
  • A mixture of FPTP and Bloc Vote for English local councils

This would be confusing enough, even without the fact that precious few people in Scotland seem to understand how the electoral system used for the Scottish Parliament actually works. So I thought I would have a go at explaining.

In the time-honoured tradition, I will use a simplified ‘Ruritanian’ analogy.

In the imaginary land of Ruritania, parliament has 100 seats.

  • 50 are awarded on the basis of first-past-the-post in constituencies.
  • 50 are awarded on the basis of a national list by proportional representation.
  •  There are four parties: Red, Green, Yellow and Blue.
  • Each voter has two votes: one for the constituency and one for the list.

Now let’s imagine that the results of the 50 constituencies are as follows:

  • Red wins 5 constituencies.
  • Green wins 2 constituencies.
  • Yellow wins 35 constituencies.
  • Blue wins 8 constituencies.

And let’s assume that the results of the lists are as follows:

  • Red wins 20%
  • Green wins 10%
  • Yellow wins 45%
  • Blue wins 25%

Now – this is the important bit and the bit many people don’t seem to understand – the overall distribution of seats is principally determined by the LIST VOTE on the basis of proportionality. So, with a 100-member parliament, the parties are entitled to the following number of seats:

  • Red: 20
  • Green: 10
  • Yellow: 45
  • Blue: 25

Now, that means that each party is entitled to a number of list seats so that its TOTAL NUMBER of seats is equal to its entitlement set out above, so:-

  • The Red party is entitled to 15 list seats (to add to the 5 constituencies it has won, bringing its total to 20).
  • The Green party is entitled to 8 list seats (to add to the 2 constituencies it has won, bringing its total to 10).
  • The Yellow party is entitled to 10 list seats (to add to the 35 constituencies it has won, bringing its total to 45).
  • The Blue party is entitled to 17 list seats (to add to the 8 constituencies it has won, bringing its total to 25).

So, for 45% of the votes, the yellow party won only 10 list seats. But for 20% of the votes, the red party won 15 list seats. On that level, it looks unfair. But – and again, this is the important part – the lists are compensatory: so the overall result, once you add the list and constituency seats together, is fair.

The Scottish system differs from this in detail – there are regional lists, not one national list, for example, and there are more constituency seats than list seats – but the principle is the same. It results in a broadly proportional outcome, where each party gets a TOTAL number of seats to equal its share of the list vote.


Final Clinton vs Trump post (at least for now)

Hillary is the candidate of ‘more of the same’. If you think more of the same is ok, if the system pretty much works for you, if you don’t think more of the same is a suicidal rush into ecological, environmental and cultural disaster, then Hillary is the safe bet. But if you don’t feel that way about the status quo – if you think there’s not much left to lose – then Trump might be attractive because he’s the Wildcard. He upsets the pack and you don’t know what you are going to get.

Ok, you know he’s a megalomanic narcissist with some pretty right wing opinions, but he’s also – like Bernie – an anti-system candidate.

Of course, he’s not anti-system in the way that Bernie was anti-system. Bernie was trying to save democracy by challenging oligarchy. Trump just wants to knock things over and cause a rumpus. But if you are really disaffected with the way things work now, that might be a risk worth taking – because who knows how it might work out. It might split the republican party and lead to a realignment of politics. It might just give the political class a good kicking. It might reverse all these dreadful free trade deals that export jobs to China and make America great again. It probably won’t, but it might. There’s a glimmer of chance in the chaos.

I’m not saying that it’s the correct choice. But I can see why the white working class whose real living standards have been decreasing since the 1970s might see Trump as worth the risk. In American football they have ‘Hail Mary’ passes – a long, deep forward pass to a receiver in or near the opponent’s end zone. The chances of making it are slim, but sometimes it works. I think for those who are deeply distressed by the status quo, Trump is the ‘Hail Mary’ candidate.

Or, to put it another way, voting for Trump is like jumping from a moving train. You are almost certainly going to get injured. You’ll probably break your legs. It’s a really stupid thing to do. Unless you think the train is on fire and about to crash – in that case, voting for Hillary (staying on the train) would be suicidal, and taking a jump for it suddenly seems a lot less irrational.

This is not an endorsement of Trump. It’s a plea to see those who do support Trump as not just stupid bigoted rednecks, but as the economically marginalised people struggling to get by who will not be helped at all by Hillary’s policies. Those who supported Bernie, and those who support Trump, are often courting the same people: ordinary, working people who are sick of an oligarchic system that is rigged against them. The biggest difference is that Bernie appealed to young poor graduates, whereas Trump appeals to old poor non-graduates, and that Bernie had the right policies, whereas Trump has all the wrong ones.

A plague on both their houses

My interest in the US presidential election, as a disaffected lefty from the other side of the Atlantic, was only based on the hope that Bernie Sanders might win. If he did, then he might, by his example, do something good for the world by showing that a new form of democratic socialism was possible in the 21st century. That would be a big boost to the anti-oligarchic left in Europe and Latin America. And I’d welcome that.

But now that Sanders appears to be pretty much out of the picture, I’ve lost interest. I know this won’t be popular, but couldn’t really give much of a toss between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – they are both in my view terrible people and bad presidents.

Please understand me, this isn’t because I like Trump. Far from it. But I don’t like Clinton either. Trump appears to be arrogant narcisist who wouldn’t know the truth it it bit him on the arse, but Clinton seems about as honest as a set of liar’s dice.

I’d like to say that Trump is more dangerous in terms of foreign policy, but I’m not even sure that’s true – Clinton has a solid record as an enthusiastic war monger.

Trump plays the card of redneck populism, with racist overtones that are clearly deplorable, but Clinton is a corporate sell-out who sold her soul to Wall St.

And, at the end of the day, it’s Wall St financiers, not Bubba-Joe in his old pickup truck, who are actually causing most of the trouble in the world.

Clinton represents the soft liberalism of the 1960s-90s, with its identity politics, its political correctness, its cosying up to corporate power, and its destruction of the balwarks of stability in ordinary people’s lives such as family, morality and religion. This is the mindset that raves about transgender bathrooms, but ignores untrendy issues of arguably greater material substance, like poverty, economic insecurity, exploitation of workers (male and female, black and white, gay and straight), and the abuse of corporate power. This soft liberalism has no answers to the grave challenges that we as a civilisation face today. Only a renewed social democracy can do that, and neither Trump nor Clinton offer anything of that sort.

A plague on both their Houses.

Edit: Although, obviously – for the sake of those who need it spelled out, Trump’s still worse. Clinton probably won’t start a world war or nuke civilisation out of existence. Trump isn’t a fit man to have his hands anywhere near a nuclear bomb.