Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Better Together?

Scottish Liberal Democrats could campaign more effectively for genuine federalism outside the all-party Better Together campaign, argues Tony Greaves
In 1987, during the merger talks between the Liberal Party and the SDP, David Steel said I was a “North of England Nationalist”. We were of course discussing how to fit the demands of Liberal and SDP negotiators from Scotland and Wales – for Scottish and Welsh autonomy within a federal constitution – with the conundrum of the much larger England.

I remembered this while watching Willie Rennie call for the No campaign to get some “sunshine” into its strategy. I never understood why the proposal for a ‘Devolution Max’ question on the ballot paper was so strongly opposed by all the Westminster lot – including Liberal Democrats – since it would have provided something positive to campaign for. I still do not understand why the Scottish Liberal Democrats are not running a much clearer and separate campaign for a federal solution which, as I understand it, would mean going just one step further than dev-max.

But who am I to comment? My involvement in Scottish politics has been minimal. A couple of branch visits when I chaired the Young Liberals. A week or so at the Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles by-election in 1965 (that man Steel again), when I ended up running the polling day organisation in Hawick. A couple of days at Kincardine and Deeside, where those of us with English accents were sent to canvass Labour voters on the housing schemes on the edge of Aberdeen (some were thinking of voting SNP, so I entertained them with Liberal theories of sovereignty, and autonomy within a federal system. It didn’t seem to do any harm, though they were more interested in getting their bins emptied).

And a couple of days at the Dunfermline by-election (that Rennie lad again). Apart from that, I’ve been to Liberal Assemblies at Edinburgh and Dundee, and Liberal Democrat conferences in Glasgow, and I did various training sessions in Scotland back in the ALC days. My wife is half Scottish and we’ve spent many holidays in the Highlands and Islands, most recently in the wonderful remoteness of Uig on the Isle of Lewis. And I’m a fervent fan of the Highland rock band Runrig!

All this is not to prove my deep personal experience of Scottish politics, but the reverse. By and large, English natives either think Scotland is part of England (my mother once came back from a Mediterranean cruise to report they had met “a really nice English couple from Edinburgh”) or recognise that, while it is not exactly foreign, it is, in undefined and mysterious ways, a bit different.

The Scottish referendum campaigns, with six months still to go, are already building an astonishing crescendo. For what it’s worth, I have felt for some time that there will be a No majority but small enough for the issue not to be killed off, and another referendum within five or six years. But it could go the other way and if UKIP ‘win’ England in the European elections in May it might tip the balance.

So I ask myself what I would do if I had a vote. I am getting requests to phone voters in Scotland, even at this early stage, but what would I say to them? I’m afraid that following a script laid down by HQ is not my style – I don’t believe that Liberal politicians should be automatons! I am not going to say things I think are nonsense, and much of the No campaign as we hear it south of the Border seems to me to be nonsense, and counter-productive nonsense.

The more I listen to the Better Together campaign, the less I like it. I was appalled by the threats by the Westminster parties, including ourselves in the person of Danny Alexander, over the pound. The view that a currency union would be out of the question, full stop, not to be discussed; and that it could not be negotiated in any circumstances; is or is not sensible policy. But as a blunt statement at this stage, it was stupid politics and anyone with an ounce of common sense could see that.

It is a perfectly reasonable argument and probably correct that the best currency arrangement for both Scotland and residual UK (rUK) is the status quo: a single currency, the pound, within a substantially unitary state. (I say “substantially unitary” because more powers are likely to slip away to Scotland whatever happens in September, and some federal or quasi-federal elements – entrenched checks and balances – are not out of the question). If it is true that the status quo is better than any of the four options put forward in the Scottish government’s white paper, that is certainly a good argument for voting No.

But to present it as a patronising threat is stupid. It’s common sense that, if there is a Yes vote, all these things will be on the table. The question for the Westminster negotiators will then not be “Can we frighten the Scots into voting No?” It will be “What is now best – or least worst – for rUK?” It is at least possible that, if the status quo is no longer on the table, a currency union is the least worst option. Or at least that it should be considered and negotiated to see whether that is the case.

I cannot see that the Noes are helped at all by posh rich English Tories such as Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne lecturing the people of Scotland on these matters. And Danny Alexander may represent a Highland constituency but I guess that, for many Scots, he is just another government minister in that remote south-eastern corner of Britain that nevertheless acts as though it has an eternal right to rule the roost over the rest of us. And if here in the North of England Pennines we sometimes feel like that about “that London” and its arrogant metropolitan ruling elite, how much more must it resonate in Glasgow and Aberdeen, not to mention on the Isle of Lewis.

So why might we have got it so wrong? When I talk to Liberal friends in Scotland, I hear a lot about Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon and the SNP. I hear them denouncing “the nationalists”. And often with a fervour that seems to me to go beyond reason. As I write this, Alistair Carmichael has just made his call to arms and his warning that “the nationalists” have more hunger as well as more money. Yet it is becoming clear that the Yes vote already includes many people who are not committed SNP voters, and many who consider their usual ideological attachments to be elsewhere on the ordinary spectrum.

From outside the hothouse of Scottish politics, it’s easy to forget that Scotland really is different. There is a political culture, a regional (or to Scots national) forum of politics, politicians and debate, with its associated media and the Scottish parliament and government at the heart of it, that does not exist anywhere in England except to an extent in London, where it is much more intertwined with national (i.e. Westminster/English) politics. It seems to me that this Scottish insularity has led to an obsession with Salmond and the SNP. Salmond may be a an unprincipled opportunist who would dip his granny if it served his advancement, and the SNP may indeed be full of English-hating Celtic racists and local political thugs urged on by the likes of Ms Sturgeon. I am not close enough to know.

But looking from outside, these views seem to me to be exaggerated, rather like the caricatures I might sometimes express about the Labour Party! Perhaps it is necessary to develop such myths when faced with an efficient political force led by a person of undoubted political competence and charisma. When it throws Liberals into bed with and under the leadership of our natural political enemies in the Labour Party and the Conservative and Unionist Party (its official name since 1912, when it absorbed the Liberal Unionists).

I am astonished that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are now content to be labelled as Unionists. Back to anecdotes at David Steel’s by-election (and there are many) – the Tories had strung a huge banner across the main street in Galashiels. A certain Liberal agent had a small car (a Morris Traveller?) on which he placed a step-ladder, which he climbed with a big pair of shears. The car was pushed slowly under the banner and the shears did the trick. The point of the story is that the banner simply said “Vote Unionist”.

Perhaps some conscious uncoupling is needed to create some of Willie Rennie’s campaign sunshine and the promotion of a distinctive Liberal Democrat version of dev-max. Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael is probably one of the few members of the present government who has credibility in Scotland as an independent-minded Scot, and I think he is right to start to bang on about the positive side of the union, though promoting the coalition’s policies will not be easy in areas such as the welfare cuts, undermining of employment rights and public service cuts in general, when the view from north of the Trent/Watford Gap, never mind Hadrian’s Wall, is more of a gang of upper-class Tory right-wingers using austerity to line the pockets of the London-based elite.

To be fair, Ming Campbell and Michael Moore have been leading a call for more powers for Scotland and a federal relationship with rUK, though this is not easy when the party’s policy on devolution or federalism in England is in such a mess. Moore’s call for “True federalism [which] will allow for a system of government that accommodates for the expression of different identities within one system, but combines with it the additional influence and strength which comes from co-operation and common purpose” is spot on, but as a party we don’t know how to achieve it, which is a bit awkward at this stage of the debate.

So what do I conclude? First, that the referendum will be decided by Scots (i.e. residents of Scotland) in Scotland. And that the rest of opinionated UK should let them get on with it. Second, with six months still to go, what else is there to say and who else to say it? In which context generating scare stories from London will have less and less effect unless that is counter-productivity. And third, that Willie Rennie’s strategic sunshine is unlikely to beam out from the Better Together lot since it depends on having a vision of the future which they can’t produce because they don’t agree about it.

It’s time for our friends north of the Border to crystallise their Liberal Democrat vision for Scotland, disengage from all-party establishment mush, and join the likes of Michael Moore on a distinctive Liberal campaign trail. Or we might all be saying bye-bye.
(This article appears in Liberator 365, now out)

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Off at Least One Fence

[Commentary from Liberator 365, which will be with subscribers next week]

Nick Clegg’s decision to challenge Nigel Farage to television debates on the European Union was certainty brave – even if Clegg’s jokes suggested a career in stand-up comedy does not await him after politics.

Although commentators mostly said Farage had won the debates, Clegg was able to say reasonably enough that he could not reverse decades of populist eurosceptic bile and alarmism in two hours. What he did do was make the pro-EU case unabashedly in public – a refreshing change from previous European elections when the Liberal Democrats campaigned on more or less anything except the EU.

As Charles Kennedy has now revealed, in 2004 he wasn’t allowed (it remains unclear by whom) to run an avowedly pro-European campaign, and the Liberal Democrats duly concentrated on local issues and government bashing. Things were no better in 2009, when Clegg was still trying to disentangle himself from Ming Campbell’s attempts to appease anti-EU voters by making convoluted promises about referendums.

As Liberator has long pointed out, every opinion poll shows a pro-Europe vote vastly in excess of the number of people who have ever voted Liberal Democrat, and it ought to have been self-evident long ago that this was the pool in which the party should fish. Instead, it muttered about referendums in an attempt to buy off those minded to support UKIP or the Tories.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats have realised that anti-EU voters have a choice of two parties that really mean their hostility, and there is no earthly point in trying to posture as the third such party by promoting something in which they do not believe anyway.

Whatever viewers may have thought of the debates, Clegg has established himself as the country’s most prominent pro-EU politician and has given his party something on which to fight the European Parliament elections.

Will this approach be extended? Clegg has clearly come down on one side on the question of the UK’s membership of the EU. Yet on other matters, he keeps insisting that the Liberal Democrats are ‘in the centre’, a stance interpreted widely as meaning the party simply wishes to split the difference between the Conservatives and Labour.

As has been often repeated, though it would seem not often enough, if you are in the centre you allow those on either side to define your position. It is also meaningless as a political stance. By declaring oneself to be there, what are you and what are you against, and in power what would you do? Why would being ‘in the centre’ at the next general election give people any particular reason to vote Liberal Democrat?

Clegg has learnt the lesson that his party cannot again fight the European elections by campaigning about nothing in particular and seeking to offend no one. Indeed, by cultivating the pro-EU vote for May, Clegg has explicitly set out to offend eurosceptics and signal that he doesn’t seek their votes.
Good. Maybe this step will see the party at last drop the delusion that it can ‘win everywhere’ and realise that it needs a core vote, of which the pro-EU one is an important part but not the whole.

Misguided or (at best) forced decisions in coalition have alienated the students, young professionals and rural poor who were the main props of the party’s support in 2010. Perhaps the party will now see who it should appeal to and who it should not waste its breath trying to cultivate, and so develop a platform that stands a chance of enthusing some badly needed voters.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

EU per diem rates external aid contracts. Attachment for previous post.

Current per diem rates

Last update / Dernière mise à jour: 01/07/2013

In the framework of EC-funded external aid contracts and in case of missions requiring an overnight stay away from the base of operations , the applicable rates to the per diems must not exceed the scales detailed hereunder. These rates are applicable from 5 July 2013
Per diems cover accommodation, meals, local travel within the place of mission and sundry expenses

Les per diems couvrent le logement, les repas, les frais de transport à l'intérieur du lieu de mission et les menues dépenses.

Dans le cadre des contrats d'aide extérieure financés par la Commission et lors de missions impliquant des nuitées en dehors du lieu d'affectation, les taux de per diems applicables ne doivent pas excéder les biremes détaillés ci-dessous.Ces taux sont d'application à partir du 5 juillet 2013

EU Member States
Austria 225
Belgium 232
Bulgaria 227
Croatia 180
Czech Republic 230
Cyprus 238
Denmark 270
Estonia 181
Finland 244
France 245
Germany 208
Greece 222
Hungary 222
Ireland 254
Italy 230
Latvia 211
Lithuania 183
Luxembourg 237
Malta 205
Netherlands 263
Poland 217
Portugal 204
Romania 222
Slovak Republic 205
Slovenia 180
Spain 212
Sweden 257
United Kingdom 276

Other countries
Afghanistan 215
Albania 233
Algeria 315
American Samoa 183
Angola 353
Anguilla 275
Antigua and Barbuda 247
Argentina 308
Armenia 138
Aruba 244
Australia 259
Azerbaijan 311
Bahamas 248
Bahrain 265
Bangladesh 165
Barbados 276
Belarus 171
Belize 215
Benin 170
Bermuda 391
Bhutan 224
Bolivia 137
Bosnia and Herzegovina 130
Botswana 209
Brazil 204
Brunei 170
Burkina Faso 192
Burundi 188
Cambodia 157
Cameroon 213
Canada 287
Cape Verde 194
Cayman Islands 236
Central African Republic 163
Chad 219
Chile 206
China 213
Colombia 197
Comoros 203
Congo 219
Congo, Dem. Rep. (RDC) 229
Cook Islands 212
Costa Rica 160
Cote d'Ivoire 233
Cuba 168
Djibouti 183
Dominica 187
Dominican Republic 195
Ecuador 153
Egypt 225
El Salvador 163
Equatorial Guinea 330
Eritrea 200
Ethiopia 251
Fiji 216
Gabon 252
Gambia 161
Georgia 209
Ghana 256
Grenada 292
Guam 242
Guatemala 192
Guinea 216
Guinea Bissau 170
Guyana 203
Haiti 212
Honduras 160
Hong Kong 302
Iceland 261
India 153
Indonesia 208
Iran 114
Iraq 275
Israel 309
Jamaica 203
Japan 256
Jordan 179
Kazakhstan 292
Kenya 269
Kiribati 124
Korea, Dem. Peo. Of 137
Korea, Republic of 305
Kuwait 274
Kyrgyzstan 157
Laos, People's Dem. Rep. 146
Lebanon 357
Lesotho 102
Liberia 180
Libyan Arab Jamahiriya 183
Macao 186
Macedonia (Fyrom) 171
Madagascar 186
Malawi 193
Malaysia 179
Maldives 197
Mali 183
Marshall Islands 155
Mauritania 127
Mauritius 198
Mexico 237
Micronesia 147
Moldova 173
Monaco 268
Mongolia 157
Montenegro 143
Montserrat 196
Morocco 179
Mozambique 219
Myanmar 176
Namibia 103
Nauru 144
Nepal 167
Netherlands Antilles 236
New Zealand 268
Nicaragua 130
Niger 180
Nigeria 206
Niue 121
Norway 260
Oman 233
Pakistan 152
Palau, Republic of 223
Panama 184
Papua New Guinea 407
Paraguay 194
Peru 174
Philippines 180
Puerto Rico 233
Qatar 314
Russian Federation 364
Rwanda 248
Samoa 201
Sao Tome & Principe 133
Saudi Arabia 344
Senegal 224
Serbia 158
Seychelles 279
Sierra Leone 214
Singapore 364
Solomon Islands 227
Somalia 154
South Africa 176
Sri Lanka 180
St. Kitts and Nevis 196
St Lucia 225
St. Vincent and the Grena 205
Sudan 204
South Soudan - update 30 August 2013 242
Suriname 150
Swaziland 157
Switzerland 301
Syrian Arab Republic 259
Tajikistan 146
Tanzania, United Rep. of 218
Thailand 171
Timor Leste 141
Togo 213
Tokelau Islands 55
Tonga 265
Trinidad and Tobago 243
Tunisia 156
Turkey 142
Turkey Istanbul 230
Turkmenistan 150
Turks and Caicos Island 257
Tuvalu 125
Uganda 240
Ukraine 316
United Arab Emirates 295
United States of America 279
Uruguay 212
Uzbekistan 168
Vanuatu 180
Venezuela 322
Viet Nam 126
Virgin Islands (British) 272
Virgin Islands (USA) 272
West Bank and Gaza Strip 142
Yemen 166
Zambia 216
Zimbabwe 154

Please note that the United Nations has discontinued the regular publication of per diem rates
for the countries listed below:
French Guyana
French Polynesia
Marianna Islans
New Caledonia
Wallis & Futuna Islands
The per diem rates for Kosovo are not published by the United Nations

EU spending reform – a quick and simple place to start.

Cut the expenses paid to consultants on EU funded aid projects.

In February there were two major conferences in London on EU reform. One hosted by a centre right think tank and a Conservative Party group (which had speakers from parties across Europe and got lots of publicity), one by the European Commission itself to consult the public (which didn’t).

I tweeted to join in to both debates (a little late on) one simple way to start cutting wasted EU expenditure – cut the expenses paid to consultants on EU funded aid projects.

The conferences were a ‘Pan-European Conference for EU Reform’ 15 – 16 January. Its blurb stated “Open Europe and the Fresh Start Project joined forces to bring together key European reformers in an unprecedented pan-European conference calling for EU reform.”

The European Union’s own public events was a Citizens’ Dialogue event on 10 February, with Viviane Reding, European Commission Vice-President.

‘Debate on the future of Europe.’ They stated “We are looking for your practical ideas about what the EU should be doing.
What should the EU be doing to tackle the crisis?
What should your rights be as a citizen of the European Union?
What should the European Union of the future look like?”

In a recession when national governments are all making cuts, and the public feeling the pinch, the EU needs to make significant savings also. It’s only fair. A place to start saving money is cutting the very generous expenses payments that EU funded aid projects pay. Halve these per diems paid by EU to save taxpayers’ money – that would be a small but significant saving. And I believe more of the money would then go to local businesses rather than to international hotel chains.

These are rates for “EC-funded external aid contracts”.

(July 2013 figures pasted in separate post for reference – 5 pages – in case you can’t or don’t want to open the original .pdf).

Look at the per diem rates July 2013- currently the EU allowances cover nearly the cost of a night and expenses in the dearest cities in Europe (like London or Paris) for consultants in the poorest countries (just looking at Europe, like Albania or Macedonia or Moldova). The rates are €276 in the UK, €245 in France, €233 in Albania, €171 in Macedonia and €173 in Moldova. Obviously the allowances in London or Brussels or Paris are very generous and could be cut easily – it would just mean consultants having to stay in less plush accommodation and eat in less expensive restaurants. You can stay in London and Paris for a lot less and eat more cheaply. In the other countries these rates would certainly pay for nice accommodation and good bottles of the local Cobo or T’ga Za Jug, or Cricova. In less well off and countries I think this money spent in the local economy can do good for people, but at the moment it probably goes to international hotel chains and big city restaurants so only international or big businessmen benefit from the profits (plus a few local staff and suppliers). Pay half the allowances and I bet more money will actually go into the countries’ economy by being spent in smaller more local businesses and more directly benefiting local people employed there or working in the supply chain. It won’t just be EU workers and charity and other foreign consultants staying in top business hotels and (often, but of course not always) eating in the expensive international restaurants.

Plus cutting the allowances might show people in our poorer neighbours that the EU isn’t made of money and everyone from Western European projects or working on EU aid and development projects isn’t rich. The EU is not going to have pots of money to throw around to solve everyone’s problems if they join the EU – a bit to help people help themselves, but not the lavish tax free money (our money) that the European Union throws around at present.

And just a thought – if these are the rates for aid contracts (when some consultants and NGO and charity workers are presumably not in it for the money), how much do they pay for commercial work!

PS Of course I recommend the wine as a way of supporting the local economy, those (particularly the Moldovan and Albanian) and the Stonecastle from Kosovo if in those parts.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Maria Miller expenses - fraud on the electorate more than money?

Maria Miller - I have no doubt the press are hounding her to attack the Leveson charter. The headlines appear to overstate the case against her; but a political and a legal case to answer there certainly is. I still believe her adviser may have meant not to threaten the press, but to point out that hounding a Minister leading on press regulation would look oppressive. It seems Maria Miller has certainly given some genuine ammunition, which has been lost amid the headlines, pack circling and political opportunism of her press and political opponents alike. I finally thought I should get behind the soundbites and look at the report.

She may well have engaged in fraudulent behaviour and her conduct has further damaged belief in the integrity of politicians. That is as usual unfair on most honest and genuine politicians. She pretended her main home was in her Basingstoke constituency when it was in London (a fraud on the public), and she claimed for interest that she was not entitled to. The Committee may well be right that only £5,800 was clearly obtained in breach of the rules but Maria Miller's denial that she intended to claim interest on a £50,000 increase that she was not entitled to seems flimsy. The allowances may have been far too generous (so MPs could and can legitimately claim for very large amounts). However it still seems implausible that she didn't realise she was claiming this (much smaller than Commissioner ruled) sum of money that she was not entitled to. That would be actual fraud. The rules were certainly complex - the Commissioner highlighted that only original mortgage interest could be claimed, not on extensions to the mortgage even when that was before the claimant became an MP. This £50,000 was after so very obviously not entitled to be claimed (unless it fell under strict exemptions to the prohibition).

The full report of the Committee on Standards is here; with Appendix 1 the summary from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. You can click a link to each section and then back to contents etc.