Posts Tagged ‘United Kingdom’

For all the usual association of independence movements with violence and “separatism,” the fact is that secessionist movements in liberal democracies usually pursue their aims peacefully, through the democratic process, and central governments resolve not to use military force to prevent secession authorized by a democratic vote (imagine that!). Such is the case in Scotland, where a referendum on independence is to be held within the next three years.

Given that sending Her Majesty’s Armed Forces north of Hadrian’s Wall is simply not on offer, responsible politicians from all British unionist parties are starting to mull openly significant powers for Scotland. The Prime Minister himself has promised a semi-federal union for Scotland if they rejected independence, and business-funded think-tank Reform Scotland and Labour politician Alistair Darling are also on record as supporting substantial fiscal powers for Scotland. The reason such decentralization might be salutary is not only that it might preserve the union (if one believes that should be a goal), but that it moves the UK closer to the principle that each level of government should pay its own way: true fiscal federalism. Of course, for fiscal federalism to work as it ought, you need more than an autonomous Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland). You need English local governance to be comprehensively reformed as well.

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Scotland’s upcoming independence referendum has been in the news in Britain. The Scottish government wants to hold the referendum in 2014, but UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said that Westminster holds ultimate control over the wording and timing of any legally binding referendum and wants to hold the referendum sooner.

Another point of contention is whether the referendum question should include two or three options. The SNP government in Scotland is open to a three-question (status quo, independence, or “devo max“) referendum, while the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in the UK wants a two-question (in or out) referendum. The apparent worry from Westminster is that a three-option referendum could split the unionist vote and allow independence to win with a bare plurality (say, 40% for independence and 30% each for status quo and devo max). Here is a debate among British political prognosticators about what will happen.

The solution to the problem is simple: (more…)

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In a few hours, polls open in the United Kingdom for local and devolved elections and for a referendum on moving to a new electoral system, Instant Runoff Voting, which Brits and Aussies insist on calling, undescriptively, “alternative vote” (AV). This referendum came about as a demand of the Liberal Democrats, who held the balance of power in the hung parliament elected last year. The Conservatives agreed to hold the referendum but have campaigned against it. The Lib Dems, for their part, prefer proportional representation with multi-member constituencies, but decided AV was better than nothing. (Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is on record as having called AV a “miserable little compromise.”) The Labour Party is split on the reform.

Indeed, AV has many flaws. Compared to the plurality, single-member-district system used in the US, UK, and Canada currently (sometimes called, somewhat inaccurately, “first past the post”), it should at least get rid of the wasted vote problem, in which voters decide to vote for the lesser of two evils because their favored candidate cannot win. But it does so at the price of removing small third parties’ blackmail power. For instance, in the US a Libertarian would have no chance of winning, arguably even if AV were the electoral system. But at least under the current system, a Libertarian candidate can take away votes from a Republican (usually, but not always, Libertarians siphon more votes from Republicans than Democrats) and cause the Republican to lose a tight race. Therefore, Republicans at least occasionally have to pay lip service to Libertarian causes to keep those votes.

Within the UK context, AV would essentially mean a “permanent progressive majority” for the foreseeable future, since (more…)

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Marc Eisner notes the politics of fiscal irresponsibility. Such politics never seem to go out of style. Nevertheless, the coalition government in Great Britain is offering an object lesson in how to build political support for deep, wide-ranging cuts in government spending. With the UK’s finances in even slightly worse shape than the US’s, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have successfully made the case that there is no alternative. Here are some of today’s figures on polling on welfare cuts:

Making the long term unemployed spend 4 weeks doing unpaid work All voters CON voters LAB voters LD voters
Support 73 92 58 83
Oppose 17 3 31 14
Don’t know 10 5 10 3

Withdrawing Jobseekers Allowance from those who turn down a job offer or interview All voters CON voters LAB voters LD voters
Support 66 82 57 71
Oppose 21 8 33 22
Don’t know 12 9 10 6

More stringent testing for people receiving Disability Living Allowance All voters CON voters LAB voters LD voters
Support 69 86 58 70
Oppose 20 6 32 22
Don’t know 12 8 9 9

Putting a £400 a week maxium on housing benefit All voters CON voters LAB voters LD voters
Support 68 87 54 76
Oppose 20 6 37 12
Don’t know 12 7 10 12

Those are truly massive majorities.The British government is also cutting defense expenditures drastically and means-testing certain benefits, such as child care, so that the middle classes will no longer receive them. These policies are somewhat less popular but still enjoy majority support.

So how did they do it? One of the key requirements for the political “optics” of the cuts was the coalition government. With a social democratic party in the Lib Dems joining the Conservatives in supporting the cuts, the government was shielded from accusations of heartlessness or right-wing mania. Moreover, supporters of both parties outnumber Labour supporters. In the media, key Labour Party figures have been successfully characterized as “deficit deniers,” the people who caused the problem in the first place.

Coalition government is supposed to slow down the pace of change and create gridlock, just like divided government in the U.S. Nevertheless, it has worked well so far for Britain because it allows a formal structure that ties both parties to each other – neither party wants the coalition to fail, which would surely bring on a new election.

Unfortunately, this institutional characteristic of some parliamentary systems – endogenous election timing – is not available to American politicians. Nevertheless, Britain’s experience suggests that one way out of the fiscal mess in the U.S. would be a bipartisan, cross-chamber coalition of sorts, narrowly focused on solving the budget crisis. Given the midterm election results, the popular mandate is there for a radical fiscal house-cleaning, if anyone decides to take it up. Reasonable Republicans and Blue Dogs can join forces to create clear majorities in both houses and negotiate – in hard-fought, late-night sessions if need be – a package of radical spending reductions and tax reforms needed to close the budget gap.

With a bipartisan mandate, who could run against the results? The anti-tax-hike and anti-spending-cut extremists on both sides will be neutralized. President Obama will have no choice but to endorse the outcome of such a negotiation. Imagine if he vetoed the plan. He would clearly be the one responsible for shutting the government down if it came to that. He couldn’t blame the Republicans – because the cutters would have substantial Democratic support. He’d merely be making himself look even more liberal, which I’m sure his political advisors realize is not the key to victory in 2012.

We can dream, can’t we? As unlikely as this scenario sounds, the bottom line is that spending cuts need not be politically toxic. If you frame the debate as one of responsibility versus madness, voters will choose the former.

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UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, has opened up a public website on which British citizens can give their ideas for curbing government and restoring freedom. Given the social democratic tilt of the Lib Dems since the 1980s, this initiative seems promising. Here’s a sample of what Brits are saying about drug prohibition (the top-rated idea sounds as if it came straight of Harry Browne‘s mouth).

HT: Radley Balko.


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The NY Times is reporting that British Prime Minister David Cameron is forecasting “decades of austerity” because of the swelling deficit in the UK.

What caught my eye about this story is the location of his speech, a town called Milton Keynes.  Does some scheduler in the new Tory government have a sense of humor by locating this speech in a town that references the two greatest macroeconomists of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman?

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Like the UK, Germany is planning to “set an example” by virtually eliminating their deficit by 2014. Couple these efforts with those of Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Portugal, and the U.S. is really starting to look out of step.


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