democracy



Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. This post would not seem to fit easily into the main business of HelpGov’s helpful blog but I have nowhere else to publish it. Our awareness of the holocaust is at least reflected in the many acts of commemoration of it by local authorities and government in the United Kingdom. 

In Krakow I met a student from the GDR.

‘You should go there,’ he said. ‘You know, work parties from the GDR helped to restore it. We had a crazy professor who took us to do that. At the end when the Poles gave a dinner to thank us he said how lucky they were to have this wonderful anti-fascist memorial.’

I had already decided to go.

By the standards of its day, the train from Krakow was modern, electrified and busy. I changed at a suburban station before Katowice. There was a silence, broken only by the wheeze of a small steam locomotive at a far platform, the branch line for Oświęcim. There were two, maybe three, wooden carriages, old enough to have separate compartments. I was alone in mine. A whistle blew and the engine groaned into action to the hiss of steam and sulphuric reek of coal smoke. The carriage creaked as it rocked gently sideways, the rails below sounding a slow clickety-click, clickety-click. A flat featureless plain passed slowly outside.

Oświęcim was the end of the line. No more than four or five locals got off the train, slamming carriage doors behind them. A small town with a modern concrete station, larger than such a sleepy place needed, anticipating visitors who were not here today. In the forecourt, an arrow helpfully directed me in Polish and German to ‘Oświęcim/Auschwitz.’

Even in 1970 photographs had made me familiar with the main entrance gate, the curved ironwork overhead spelling out the famous lie, ‘Arbeit macht frei.’ Rows of two-storey red brick barrack blocks receded beyond the gate, administrative buildings for an industrial operation – the efficient murder of millions of people.

Beyond them again lay the foundations of demolished huts, the cramped quarters of prisoners kept alive, at least for a time, until they could work no longer in adjoining factories.

And further over, the long railway sidings where other trains had arrived, victims offloaded from cattle trucks from all over Nazi-occupied Europe once the mass murder started. Some siphoned off for slave labour, some for the gas chambers.

Back in the barracks, whole floors had been arranged to show the brute scale of the operation. A room with a mountain of suitcases. Another with a hill of shoes. A tumbling glacier of spectacles. Prosthetic limbs piled high. On the long walls, thousands of photos of prisoners in rows, each with a simple black frame enclosing a blank-eyed man woman or child in striped uniform staring at the camera, a name and prisoner number underneath. Occasionally, maybe no more than every thousand photos, a small posy of dried flowers, a ribbon or note pushed between frame and wall. In a separate building a crematorium, steel ovens side by side as if in some hellish bakery, doors left open, each with a metal stretcher visible inside. No personal mementos here but large bouquets and wreaths of flowers and shiny green leaves, a brightly-coloured commemorative sash around each proclaiming which delegation, which fraternal group of socialist visitors, had left their temporary mark.

The whole place was silent. If there were other visitors I failed to see them in my introspection.

At the entrance there was a small shop, a limited range of books, most in Polish, some translated into other languages. I bought a small paperback – FROM THE HISTORY OF KL – AUSCHWITZ Vol. 1, published in Poland in 1967. For years I scarcely looked at it, eventually lending it to my daughters when they studied the history of Nazi Germany and themselves visited Auschwitz with their school. The book is in front of me now. Its flimsy pages and cramped text suggest meticulous research. It sets Auschwitz in the context of what it calls ‘Hitler’s programme of the extermination of the Nations.’ It lists ‘Poles, Russians, Czechs, Frenchmen,’ and many others. It details how Soviet army prisoners held in the camp were treated. ‘Prisoners in Auschwitz,’ it says, ‘belonged to various race groups … arrested regardless of religious denomination.’ It mentions Jewish prisoners but not the peculiar cruelty that attended the attempts of the Nazis to exterminate the Jews. It is as if there were no holocaust. It is a small reminder of how history can be written to tell lies and of the importance of remembering the truth.


This post may seem ironic to people working in local government in England where both their functions and the funding they receive from central government to provide them have been and are being so drastically cut. The actual circumstances I set out apply directly to Scotland (I pick up the political aspects of those circumstances in my other blog). But the arithmetic and the issues are relevant anywhere a higher level of government helps fund a lower level.

People don’t like paying taxes. They especially don’t like paying them when it’s very obvious (unlike, say, VAT) and when a bill for them arrives, literally, through the door. And they don’t like paying more taxes in times of inflation or when they feel hard pressed.

Local government, throughout the UK, has for a long time received most of its funding directly from central government. How much they get and why is a complex story. But crudely speaking, about 70% of council funding has come from central government. Some of the rest comes from income (parking fines, housing rents and so on) but much of this is, to use the jargon, ring-fenced for specific purposes. So, also crudely speaking, we can say that councils have received about 30% of their income from local taxes – once upon a time domestic rates, briefly and notoriously the poll tax, and now council tax.

Because of its visibility, people are very conscious of increases in council tax levels. They don’t like it. They moan to their elected representatives at all levels and the government comes under pressure to ‘do something’ about it.’ The ‘something’ they’re sometimes tempted to do is institute a council tax freeze, paid for by them in exchange for certain commitments by councils (I examine the Scottish example in my other blog).

There are two unintended consequences of a council tax freeze of this sort.

First, over time central government funds a greater and greater percentage of council spending. The following table illustrates this.

If

  1. a council service costs £100 in year 1 and annual inflation is 3%
  2. and it is funded 70% by the government, 30% by council tax
  3. and the government agrees to pay for the maintenance of that service at existing levels providing the council agrees not to increase council tax

this is what happens.

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6 Year 7
TOTAL COST 100.0 103.0 106.1 109.3 112.6 116.0 119.5
Government pays 70.0 73.0 76.1 79.3 82.6 86.0 89.5
Council tax pays 30.0 30.0 30.0 30.0 30.0 30.0 30.0
% paid by government 70.0 70.8 71.7 72.6 73.4 74.1 74.9

So in seven years, in this simplified example, central government funding increases from 70% of a council’s spending to virtually 75% (three-quarters) and the longer the freeze continues, the higher that percentage will creep.

I spell out some of the detailed consequences of this in Scotland in my other blog that I’ve already mentioned. But the general point, as the old saying has it, is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. And the more he pays, the more he calls the tune.

The second unintended consequence is that wealthy people benefit more from a council tax freeze than poor people.

This can be illustrated by the situation where I live, in Aberdeen. There are seven council tax bands based (historically) on the value of your house or flat. Each band is set as a percentage of the middle Band, D, a sort of rough average.

The table below shows what the council tax is in 2014/15 for the lowest, ‘average’ and highest property bands in Aberdeen. If the council tax freeze were to continue for seven years, council tax would stay at those levels – £820.26, £1230.39 and £2460.78 respectively. The table shows what council tax would be if inflation continued throughout at 3% per year and there were no freeze.

2014/15 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/21
Band A 820.26 844.87 870.22 896.33 923.22 950.92 979.45
Band D 1230.39 1267.30 1305.32 1344.48 1384.81 1426.35 1469.14
Band H 2460.78 2534.60 2610.64 2688.96 2769.63 2852.72 2938.30

From this information it is easy to calculate what people in each band would save with a freeze (the difference between 2014/15 and 2015/16 + 2014/15 and 2016/17 etc)

Band A 543.45
Band D 815.06
Band H 1692.54

So the taxpayers in the highest council tax band save £1149.09 more than those in the lowest band.

You may object to this on the basis that the council tax is based on housing prices not incomes. What about the little old lady with a small income who lives in a large house inherited from her parents? What about the self-made millionaire who never moved out of his council house? Of course extreme cases like this exist. But on balance we can be sure with some confidence that in most cases the value of the property that people live in reflects their wealth and income. So a council tax freeze tends to benefit the better off more than the poor.

My contention is that both this and the increasing reliance of council funding on central government are unintended consequences of a council tax freeze. To keep the technical and more overtly political aspects of this separate I look at some of the wider implications in my The Nation says No Thanks! blog.


In my last brief post on the HelpGov blog nearly three months ago I forswore the mention here of Scotland’s independence referendum. Well, as will be obvious to all but the most news-averse reader ‘indyref’ as it became universally dubbed on Twitter has been and gone. I got the result I wanted (see the blog formerly known as No Thanks! but now renamed The Nation says No Thanks!) and my mind is relatively clear to return to the meat of public service issues.

Now there’s a slight cheat here because the subject of this first-post-for-three-months arises directly from said referendum I said I’d forswear.

Regardless of the result one of the features that everyone must have noticed was the high participation in the Yes and No campaigns and the high turnout: 85% of the electorate voted. There was also a burst of voter registration in the period running up to the deadline as these figures for Scotland show

  • Registered electorate 2012 – 4,060,000
  • Registered electorate 2014 – 4,280,000

Some of those on the new register were the 16 and 17 year olds who could vote for the first time. But many were older people who registered to vote for the first time, or at least the first time for many years.

And that’s the trigger for this post.

A number of councils have said they will use the new up to date and expanded registers to find residents who owe them money, in particular council tax and the long-gone poll tax. The charge seems to have been led by the last council I worked for, Aberdeenshire.

Instant outrage has followed.

A typical example was a local spokesperson for a group called Women for Independence, who is quoted in today’s Press and Journal as saying

The reason many people, particularly from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds, stayed off the register was because of a suspicion that they would be targeted by councils for debts arising from the now-scrapped poll tax. Not only is this targeting the poorest but smacks of retribution for those people daring to find a voice in our democratic process.

The outrage is of course complete tosh although less polite words are available.

The facts are

  • it is entirely legitimate for a council to seek to recover debts owed to it, whether for the poll tax, council tax or any other reasons
  • those other reasons for debt range from business owners who disappear leaving business rates unpaid to housing tenants who do a flit owing rent
  • debts owed to a council are in effect debts owed to all of us as citizens
  • councils have always used as many sources of information as they efficiently can to recover debts
  • people who decline to pay their debts to a council do so for many reasons. A past political act in relation to the poll tax may be one but a not insubstantial proportion are people who won’t pay rather than can’t
  • poor people don’t have to pay all their debts off in one go but can come to an arrangement to pay in manageable instalments
  • no evidence has been presented to say that new entrants on the electoral register in 2014 are either so poor they cannot pay their debts or are more likely to owe their council money than any other electors
  • old debt is not somehow forgivable because it is old. The only criterion that should be used to write it off is an excessive cost of collection.

I am pleased councils are using every feasible means to collect unpaid debts. More power to their elbow.


I got myself in a debate on Twitter last night about this question. Someone made the following statement about people in Scotland

the majority wants Trident out.

I responded

Scot Soc Att Survey – 59% either in favour of nuclear weapons or no view

To ‘fess up straight away I was wrong about 59%, the true figure is 53%, but that’s still a majority. I gave a link to the correct data online (it’s set out in detail below) and the full source is the excellent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey.

What happened next is worthy of some examination because there is a view around the independence referendum that people don’t have enough information available to decide. This particular exercise in correcting one small misapprehension led to the following exchange

HIM: nice manipulation of the data. Kudos

ME: Since I gave rational answer to yr prev point I assume ‘nice manip’n of the data’ isn’t directed at me

HIM: no you attempted to manipulate data to substantiate your opinion.

HIM: it isn’t a factual error…Out of those that have an opinion, the majority want it out

ME: Have to agree to differ then because I think ‘neither in favour or against’ *is* an opinion

HIM: not when you’re claiming majority by manipulating stats. Majority of those of opinion want it out

HIM: is that correct? yes or no?

ME: I can’t explain further but I do have a reasonable understanding of statistics. Good night.

So without the constraints of 140 characters per message of Twitter who’s right, ‘him’ or ‘me’?

Here are the statistics I was referring to, courtesy of ScotCen Social Research:

Trident table

Click to enlarge

Source: Table in Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2013

The first thing to say is the question asks whether Britain should have nuclear weapons, not Trident specifically. But since Trident missiles are the only nuclear weapons Britain possesses it’s a reasonable approximation. It should also be noted that the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey is a reputable, reliable and statistically valid source of opinion on the subject matter it covers. I know of no other up to date neutral source that addresses the same issue.

The nub of the difference between my interlocutor and me is whether people who answered ‘neither in favour or against’ should be included in the calculation of the percentage of people ‘against Trident.’ I say yes because to be neither for nor against is to express a view. Moreover, even a survey of this high quality is a relatively blunt instrument at catching the full subtlety of people’s opinions. So I could easily imagine a whole range of views underlying an opinion that someone is neither in favour nor against Britain having its own nuclear weapons. For example

  • You know, I couldn’t care less. I’ve got more important things to worry about
  • Well, I can see things for and against. It’s a fine balance
  • It’s not really relevant to defence these days but if the experts want it…
  • and so on.

In any event, the statement originally made was that ‘the majority wants Trident out’, not ‘the majority excluding “don’t knows” and those “neither in favour nor against” want Trident out’ – as the other person concerned amended his claim to when challenged. These are two quite different things.

To put it another way, if you lined up 100 Scots and said ‘Will everyone who is somewhat or strongly against Britain having nuclear weapons please step forward?’ 46 would. That’s a minority.

This sort of detail is important because it’s the only way to tease out the claims and counter-claims that accompany the independence referendum debate.

Incidentally, the question of Scotland being different from the rest of the UK features prominently in ‘Yes’ claims about the independence referendum. It is interesting to compare the results of the same question asked in the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey’s sister survey south of the border (the small percentages of ‘Don’t know’s have been excluded from this table).

Trident UK

As the authors of this comparison say

The differences in the level of support are not that large, and both parts of the UK could reasonably be described as being divided on the subject (the full report can be downloaded here).

To go back to the original issue, I maintain that there is not a proven majority of people in Scotland who ‘want Trident out.’ But I’m open to reasoned arguments that prove the opposite.

 


Aficionados of the Scottish independence referendum debate will know how new words and new meanings for words are being created all the time. Some are apposite, some amusing, some offensive, some just plain daft – recently had a discussion online with a nationalist who writes his tweets as if he were Yoda, I have. A weird experience.

But there are words which, while not offensive in themselves, seek to create a misleading impression to the extent that they are actually lies.

One such word is colony, the accusation that Scotland is a colony of England. This canard surfaces frequently online and was used over the last weekend by former SNP leader Gordon Wilson, if I heard the news correctly.

Here I have the advantage over Mr Wilson. As far as I can see he has never lived outside Scotland except for some schooling on the Isle of Man. I have, and I am also old enough to have lived in a British colony (Singapore) and visited others either when they were still colonies or shortly after they became independent.

There was no single constitutional model for a British colony (the Brits pragmatists as ever) but most shared a number of features until very near their end. I would invite Mr Wilson and other perpetrators of the ‘Scotland is a colony of England’ lie to consider which apply to Scotland.

  • In a British colony, formal authority was vested in a governor as representative of the monarch and appointed by the British government.
  • There were often no democratic structures, certainly no elected national government. If there were elected representatives, they were usually confined to local councils and/or an advisory body.
  • Specific political parties, especially those that argued for independence, were often banned. Bans were often supported by imprisonment of party leaders, sometimes by detention without trial.
  • Even if there were some democratic structures, the people had no representation in the UK parliament.
  • The legal status of residents varied but they were not citizens of the United Kingdom and had no right of travel to the UK.
  • The authority of the governor was often backed up by British army units that were used if necessary to quell dissent.
  • In quelling dissent, protesters were dispersed in ways that would not be acceptable nowadays in the UK and people were sometimes killed. Widespread rebellion in some colonies like Kenya and Malaya led to the use of camps where local populations were relocated from their homes.
  • The judiciary was appointed solely by the UK government or the British colonial administration.

I can hear nationalist objections to my list – ‘Ah but there’s another sort of colonisation, of our cultural institutions and of our very minds themselves.’

Well, yes … but language is used in this way not as a form of subtle cultural metaphor but as a blunt instrument to give a false impression that through repetition might become a perceived truth.

There are plenty of arguments for and against independence for Scotland. The lie that Scotland is a colony of England is not one of them.


For anyone who hasn’t seen it Bella Caledonia is a web site that says it’s ‘an online magazine (launched in 2007) exploring ideas of independence, self-determination and autonomy.’ Whatever it was in 2007 it’s gone beyond exploration to being a sort of up-market intellectual cheer leader for the Scottish independence ‘Yes’ campaign.

They make great play of the high quality of debate about Independence, although they claim in a recent article (Doubt? by their editor Mike Small) that ‘the No campaign has a track record of constant disengagement.’ So, the high quality of debate is on their side only. Still, as they say,

just about everywhere you go, everyone’s talking about the same thing: the referendum, our collective future.

Or trying to. I tried to comment on this article when it appeared. My comment was held ‘awaiting moderation’ for a few hours while other, later comments were published. When I checked about ten hours after submitting it, my comment had disappeared. It has to be said that ALL the comments they published supported their point of view. But if one attempt to comment that didn’t fit their world view has disappeared, perhaps others have too.

Here is my unpublished comment in full:

Bella Caledonia consistently praises the quality of the independence debate from the ‘Yes’ side and consistently denigrates the quality from the ‘No’ side. The one thing I’d agree with about this post is the challenge of conducting a ‘nuanced complex argument’ on Twitter. So perhaps in this less-constrained space Bella could hitch her skirts up and answer a question I asked a couple of weeks ago on Twitter.

In a response to someone else on or before 23 April (I don’t have access to that discussion now) @bellacaledonia used the phrase ‘hate apologist.’ I asked:

‘Perhaps you could clarify what a “Hate Apologist” is? Or is it just a new term of abuse?’

You did not answer and when you posted a flattering reference the next day to an article in The Scotsman about Noam Chomsky’s view on Scottish independence as an example of the quality of debate I asked:

Hello, is that the @bellacaledonia who didn’t answer my query the other day about what they meant by “Hate apologist”? #qualityofdebate’.

The Twitter incarnation of the lovely Bella then replied:

@rogerlwhite zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz’

And I couldn’t resist commenting:

@bellacaledonia Exactly my point #qualityofdebate So what *is* a hate apologist? If you use unexplained terms you really should explain them’ [perhaps not the most elegant way to express my point but I’m sure you see what I mean].

So, third time lucky from me to Bella – what is a ‘hate apologist’? I genuinely don’t know and would love it if you could maintain what you perceive to be the high quality of debate by telling me. Otherwise I’m afraid it will be zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz from me.

Is that negative or, heaven forefend, abusive? I was merely trying to get Bella Caledonia to say what they meant by ‘Hate apologist,’ because I didn’t have a clue, and still don’t.

You see, it’s not good enough to say how high the quality of debate on a subject is then go around calling people ‘hate apologists’ and not explain what you mean.

Meantime, here is the language used in some of the comments they have published on their ‘Doubt?’ article

  • the tame jock journalists and the lamentable bbc…
  • the amoral, policy free, running on empty machine, that is Scottish Labour
  • the feartie mongers of Better Together
  • pure mischief making [an article by composer James MacMillan referred to in discussion]
  • [David] Torrance [a ‘No’ supporter] is an agitator … a devious manipulating bar steward.

High quality debate? You decide.


Anyone reading this blog over the last few months will detect a trend – I’ve been writing more and more about this year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

I swithered before I started doing this in a blog I describe as ‘…trying to make sense of government and public services, and other stuff.’ My personal views on the subject are a tad removed from many of the subjects I’ve posted over the last few years about improving public services.

Maybe I could justify my ‘#indyref’ posts as ‘other stuff.’ But what could be more closely related to the subject of ‘government’ than how a people chooses to govern itself?

It won’t take anyone long to realise that I’m a ‘No,’ or perhaps a ‘Better Together’, person and I’ve tried on a number of occasions to write coherently on where I stand about Scottish independence. My reasons for being against independence are, I believe, positive but I’ve struggled to articulate them without getting bogged down in detail.

Tom Morton

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Shetland Library

So I was grateful to Tom Morton for writing Nationalism: a dangerous delusion on his ‘Tom Morton’s beatcroft’ blog. For anyone furth of Scotland, Tom is a journalist and broadcasts on BBC Radio Scotland, currently on Morton through Midnight. You can catch him, of course, on i-Player. I don’t always agree with his choice of music and I don’t agree with every jot and tittle of what he says about the Labour party. But I do like the main thrust of what he says about independence and how he says it. And I do agree with his final conclusion

it’s a thoroughly Scottish ‘no’ from me. No to separatism. No to division. And an end to this monumental and corrupting distraction from the central moral and political issues we face.

I thank him for putting into words what I haven’t been able to and urge you to look at what else he says.

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