Sunday 29 May 2011

Why do people want independence?

I've met John Kay a couple of times and he's a good bloke with sound economic views. His latest article has caused a bit of a row:
Scotland would "gain little" by full independence, a key economic adviser to First Minister Alex Salmond has warned.

Professor John Kay said that while the move would "clearly be economically viable", increased financial power within the Union was more likely.

Given that Scotland's GDP per capita is close to both the UK and EU averages I've always accepted that an independent Scotland would be "economically viable", as does Professor Kay. He goes on to say:

"Scotland can get many of the advantages claimed for independence if it negotiates for more autonomy, while still staying part of the Union," said Prof Kay.
But that's only so if one is talking about economics. I have no doubt at all that most nationalists are motivated by questions of identity, not finance. Of course it helps their case if the economics look good but what they are working towards is for Scotland to be a normal country.

It really is rather unusual for somewhere to have its own national legal system, its own national Church, its own national sporting teams and representation, and almost all of the other attributes of nationality and yet not be independent. That's what motivates the SNP, not whether an independent Scotland would be richer or poorer.

If I could go back in a time machine to 1707 and change future history so that the words "England" and "Scotland" were never heard of again anywhere in the world and that both had been replaced by the word "Britain", Alex Salmond would not be First Minister. Indeed, there wouldn't be a Parliament in Edinburgh. Unless we'd sensibly decentralised Britain and moved its Parliament to the more civilised part of the country...

Sunday 22 May 2011

Gresham's Law and the footballer

Bad money drives out good, says Gresham’s Law supposedly. Except that it doesn’t. Bad money only drives out good if the state imposes legal tender laws that stop the market from operating properly.

In a free market coins have a purchasing power that’s related to the quantity and fineness of their metallic content. When the state starts to “clip” coins, by reducing their size or by reducing the fineness of the metal, the natural market response is to value such coins less than unclipped ones. Market forces will lead to a coin that’s been clipped by 5% having 5% less purchasing power. The state then attempts to get round this by enforcing legal tender laws that try to enforce equal value on coins that don’t have the same physical attributes.

Naturally there is a market response to this legal tender law too. Once the existence of the clipped coins becomes known people start to pay close attention to their money. If a South African bus driver asks you for a rand for a ticket, you’re not going to hand over a Kruggerrand are you? No, you're going to hand over a "clipped" rand. The bad money circulates and the good money is hoarded and thus driven out of circulation. The market responds to the state's intervention.

In a free society the same principles would operate when it comes to freedom of speech.

I remember my first trip to the US. At a shop checkout desk there was a newspaper with a headline: “Elvis seen on Moon”. Great I thought: we’ll be getting some new records. The next day it was something like: “Alien spaceship lands in Central Park”. Damn, I’d missed it. But then I started wondering why none of the other papers were carrying these stories. By the third day it was: “Fed plans to stop inflation”. Then I knew it was all a con. The point is this: in a society that allows free speech, the right to be believed has to be earned in the marketplace. And that’s how it should be here and now.

As far as I can see there are only two justifications for restricting free speech.

First, when you agree to such a restriction in a contract. For example, you work for a pharmaceutical company and your contract of employment bans you from giving away trade secrets. If you break that agreement and are fired, you deserve what you got. Besides, that would be a civil matter with there being no question of the state threatening to lock you up.

Secondly, it is legitimate to ban speech that threatens to initiate violence.

Otherwise the right to free speech is absolute. Ultimately these ridiculous injunctions and super-injunctions are designed to protect reputations. But a reputation is what goes on in someone else’s head and it is ludicrous to legislate about people’s thoughts or about the verbal expression of those thoughts. No one else has a property right in your mouth.

Ah, I hear some of you saying: “That would mean that all kinds of scurrilous stories will fill the papers.” Yes it would – for the first week or two. But then we’d quickly learn not to believe everything we read in the press. Some of us are there already – I’m now dubious about reported sightings of Elvis. But once there is a “free for all” in communicating the market will sort it all out. Only those writers and broadcasters that get it right over a long period will be trusted. The rest will be laughed at. And that’s just how it should be.

The state’s legal tender laws were an attempt to steal from the public by forcing them to accept devalued coins. The public reacted by hoarding the sound coins.

The rich and powerful got the state to restrict freedom of speech. And now, with technology and globalisation on its side, the public reacts by demanding that our freedoms be restored.

We need to get rid of state interference in both the production of money and in the production of words. Let the people drive out the bad laws.

Sunday 15 May 2011

A Scottish Guide for English Journalists

The Maximum Eck has let me into a little secret. The Scottish Government is about to institute a contest for English journalists. The journalist with the most points gets to win the "They Just Don't Get It Award" for 2011.

Points are to be won every time the journalist uses an ever-so-worn-out cliche about Scotland.

First, every mention of the word "kilt" gets you one point. Come on now, everyone's got to get at least one point, haven't they? Happily you can lose the point if you are sufficiently well informed as to explain that kilts are only worn at weddings and at football matches (normal or rugby). Note that good planning may even enable North British kilt wearers to do a wedding and a game on the same day. This is not advisable for the groom...

Almost everyone will get two points by mentioning "Braveheart". Most southern journalists think that Gibson-Wallace was born in the Highlands. It certainly looked that way in the film. Fortunately you can lose all points accumulated so far by noting that Gibson-Wallace was probably born near Glasgow Airport. If you are really informed you may explain that one body of opinion claims that Gibson-Wallace was actually born near Prestwick Airport. Either way, he was Scotland's first plane spotter. It seems unlikely that Gibson-Wallace really did have an affair with Sophie Marceau, but then how does one explain the "Auld Alliance"?

A perennial favourite is Hadrian's Wall, as in "Let's rebuild it". Mention of this pre-Berlusconi Keynesian construction site earns the contestant three points.

But beware. As all right-thinking folk know, the Wall doesn't divide Scotland and England. Oh no, not at all. It started (as did yours truly) on the Solway Firth. But, sadly for the Wall, it started on the southern side. So unlike myself. Perhaps the pre-Berlusconians were too scared to start construction in Annan, although Toni's Cafe has been there for quite some time...

The really interesting thing is at the other end, conveniently known as "Wallsend". Just before Wallsend is the fine city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. But here's an amazing fact: It looks likely that while the centre of Newcastle would still be in England when the Wall is "rebuilt", St James's Park would find itself north of the border. The Old Firm would be increased from two to three! Howay the lads, whatever foot they kick with.

Anyway, why do these Wall revisionists want to give away 99% of Northumberland? Note the angle at which the Tyne enters the North Sea. Rebuilding the Wall means England losing a huge part of its offshore resources. George Osborne will send the Wall rebuilders homewards to think again. Assuming he knows where "up north" actually is, of course.

To earn the maximum of fours points, journalists entering the contest need to mention the dreaded Deep Fried Mars Bar:

I’ve found it; the mists of myth and legend have lifted and the deep-fried Mars bar has been tracked down. It’s served as petit fours at the Hotel du Vin in Edinburgh, as is Irn-Bru Turkish delight. I’ll type that again, in case you were distracted by the urgent necessity of extracting your teeth from the table-top: it’s served as petit fours at the Hotel du Vin in Edinburgh.
Well, the Hotel du Vin is the only place in Scotland I've been to that serves the DFMB. And the joke is that the waitress assured us locals that the evil concoction was only ever eaten by tourists. Perhaps the visiting journalist should get five points for consuming this masterpiece of Scottish cuisine. After all, it'll be on expenses.

Sunday 8 May 2011

They just don't get it, do they?

I first became interested in politics way back in the late '60s and I well remember hearing the shock news that the SNP's Winifred Ewing had taken the "safe" Labour seat of Hamilton. Around that time I started reading the Scotsman and got to know the country far better on my annual visits up from London. Back then it seemed preposterous to think that Scotland would one day become independent.

Not any more.

In the early seventies I discovered libertarianism and remain a libertarian to this day. And now I live again in Scotland but one that has changed completely from the Labour/Tory one that I left so many years ago.

After Ewing's victory at Hamilton I read a letter in (I think) the Evening Standard. It went something like this:
If Scotland became independent, the next thing is that Yorkshire would want to do so as well.
At that point I knew that "they didn't get it".

The thing's this: everyone in Scotland, whether they support independence or not, thinks that in some sense Scotland is a nation.

No one in Yorkshire thinks that in some sense Yorkshire is a nation.

Yes, Yorkshire's a very fine county - the only place I've lived in England other than London. Its inhabitants are rightly proud of their identity and like nothing better than beating those folk from the other side of the Pennines. But Yorkshire's not a nation and no-one there thinks that it is.

When the Treaty of Union was signed and then approved by the two Acts of Union in 1707 (and yes, there were two, obviously) the Scots insisted on three things:

(1) The retention of the Scottish legal system

(2) The retention of the Church of Scotland

(3) The retention of the Scottish education system

Those three "retentions" are what meant that for three centuries Scots continued to see themselves as citizens of a Scottish nation within a multi-national British state. And without those retentions the Scots would never had agreed to the merger of the two parliaments.

The problem is of course that our English friends never saw it that way. From the English point of view, when they thought about it at all, England seemed to have somehow acquired a strange, wet, mountainous additional bit of land somewhere up north. Although vaguely aware that these new "Englishmen" spoke with funny accents and were rather useful in the military, very few down South had any real idea that Scotland had retained its own different civil society as laid down in the Acts of Union. I well recall coming up here on different occasions with English friends who would exclaim: "I didn't realise that it was so different up here." And they weren't talking about the weather! Well, they ken noo...

But do they? I really don't think so. Last night I spent several hours reading the English comments on the Telegraph, the Guardian and on Political Betting. It really was extraordinary.

Would Scotland have its own embassies?

Would Scotland have its own military?

Would Scotland have its own Inland Revenue? (Hopefully not, but that's another story!)

Would Scotland have its own team at the Olympics?

Would Scotland have a head of state?

etc. etc. etc

Why is it all so mysterious? Those Scots who seek independence do so because they want their nation to be just like others. No mystery.

That incidentally, is the answer to those down south who say: "The SNP doesn't really want independence because they want to remain in the EU." Now I'm not a fan of the EU, but the point is that most Scots want to be like other normal nations. If that means out of the EU, so be it. If that means in the EU, so be it. It's the wanting to be a normal nation that's they key to what happened across Scotland on Thursday.

But Cameron, Clegg, Milliband, the BBC, and the rest of them don't get it, do they? That, in my opinion, is why independence is now inevitable.

Labour England!

I've just about recovered from the excitement of the last few days and here's an initial observation.

If we take the UK 2010 General Election results for English seats and compare them with the comparable first past the post vote in Scotland last Thursday we get an interesting result:

Labour percentage of English MPs at Westminster: 35.8%

Labour percentage of Scottish MSPs at Holyrood: 20.5%