Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Who needs nuclear?

The official opening yesterday of the £160 million Glendoe hydro power station in the hills above Loch Ness coincided with an announcement from Scottish and Southern Energy that it intends to create two new hydro schemes in the Great Glen.

This is excellent news for those of us who believe that real effort should be made to ensure much more use of renewable sources of energy are used. Although we don't yet know any of the details of the proposed Great Glen schemes, projects like this are important if we are to make a real switch to greener energy.

These new hydro schemes should be seen alongside the development of other forms of greener energy. I have blogged before (here, here and here) about the potential contribution which renewable sources can make to Britain's energy requirements.

The development of wave and tidal power (still in their infancy, but with potential to deliver very significant amounts of energy), together with contributions from solar power, offshore wind farms and geothermal, between them have the capacity to deliver a huge amount of Britain's energy requirements within the next few decades.

The question thus arises as to why we should bother investing in new nuclear fission power stations. As I've highlighted before, nuclear power is not renewable, it still produces significant amounts of waste to which the only 'solution' is burial for a few thousand years until we've worked out what to do with it, it's quite an expensive way of generating power and it's not even that good at reducing carbon emissions.

In answer to my own question, with the big energy firms investing ever more sums in renewable energy schemes, I don't see that we do need nuclear fission power. I have no problem with research continuing into nuclear fusion power, but at the moment that's very far from being a viable source of power. And until that happens, our focus should be on developing renewable sources of energy - not going down the failed route of nuclear fission power.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Yes to more powers, yes to a referendum, no to independence

If the poll commissioned by BBC Scotland is accurate, most people in Scotland back more powers for the Scottish Parliament, most people want to see a referendum on the issue, and most people oppose outright independence.

The detail of the poll is quite interesting, with a majority seemingly wanting to go beyond what the Calman Commission proposed, with about two-thirds wanting control of pensions devolved to Scotland.

There is reason for caution about that figure, as it's not clear whether people would support that idea if it meant greater running costs with Scotland and the rest of the UK operating different systems. I'm also not sure how it would impact on people and companies operating on both sides of the border. It's also not clear whether it would be just the pensions system, or whether the whole of the social security system would be devolved.

Nevertheless, that question does indicate that there is a real demand for the Scottish Parliament to have greater powers. The overall figures are pretty clear: 47% back a Scottish Parliament with increased powers but remaining part of the UK, while just 28% want complete independence. A referendum is backed by 56% of those polled, compared with 37% who don't want a referendum.

That means there's a real opportunity here for those who believe in increased powers for the Scottish Parliament but don't want independence - the position of all three parties who backed the Calman Commission. A referendum on the issue should be held as soon as is practical, with independence also on the ballot. I believe a more powerful Scottish Parliament within the UK would win a substantial majority and the issue would be settled for at least a generation. Let the argument begin!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Gnats go cap in hand to Westminster

Funny how the Gnats continually insist that Scotland can survive on its own - but then moan about wanting more dosh from Westminster when it suits them.

That appears to be the case with Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon's call for £100m to vaccinate everyone in Scotland against swine flu.

There are two reasons why Westminster should tell Nicola to take a running jump. Firstly, I don't see why everyone in Scotland needs vaccinating against a disease which has killed precisely one person in this country, someone who appears to have also had complicating health issues. From what I can gather, swine flu seems little different to 'normal' flu, so why is vaccination for everyone thought necessary when it isn't done for the flu outbreaks we get every single year?

The other reason is that Scotland is responsible for health spending. If Sturgeon thinks that mass vaccination is necessary in Scotland, then it's up to the Scottish Government to find the money to do it. That's what devolution's all about.

It seems that the Gnats prefer to go cap in hand to Westminster than to do something for which they have direct responsibility.

Anyone but Beckett

Like my colleague Stephen Glenn, I think Margaret Beckett is eminently unsuitable to be the next Speaker of the House of Commons.

There are two basic reasons why she shouldn't be Speaker. Firstly, she's always been first and foremost a partisan Labour figure - always has been, always will be. She's always been slavishly loyal to whatever the prevailing orthodoxy has been in the Labour Party. She was a Bennite when that was fashionable, before evolving into a loyal deputy to John Smith, then becoming a Blairite and eventually serving willingly under Gordon Brown. What makes anyone think she'd be any different if elected Speaker?

And secondly, can anyone really see Beckett standing up for Parliament against the executive? Nope, me neither. She would be a tool of the Government, not of the Commons. That's the last thing the Commons needs at the moment.

There are several decent candidates to succeed the execrable Michael Martin: Richard Shepherd, Alan Beith and George Young would all be very good Speakers. I just hope MPs have the sense to elect one of them, rather than Margaret Beckett, who would be an appallingly bad choice.

Friday, 19 June 2009

How not to respond to expenses questions

A quite extraordinary performance from Falkirk West Labour MP Eric Joyce on Newsnight Scotland last night.

He is the biggest expenses claimant among the MPs and he quite clearly doesn't get the anger there is across the country about the issue.

In the interview by Gordon Brewer, he sees no problem in hiring as a consultant a man to whom he'd acted as best man at his wedding. When asked why he charged the taxpayer for buying three oil paintings for his constituency office, Joyce's answer was: "Because they look nice".

And the most toe-curlingly embarrassing moment was when he was asked whether he'd paid capital gains tax when he'd sold his second home and responded that Brewer was trying to delve into his personal life. My jaw was hanging open at that point. He really just doesn't get it at all.

If you want to see Joyce's spectacularly misjudged and arrogant performance for yourself, here it is.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Beware of technical fixes

The Scottish Government yesterday outlined its new road safety strategy, with the laudable aim of cutting road deaths by 40% and halving the number of serious injuries within 10 years.

Some of it does seem sensible, such as an approach to driver training which emphasises lifelong learning and improvement. Far too many people consider that passing a test gives them an automatic expert status when it comes to motoring. Only a tiny proportion of drivers will take part in schemes such as Pass Plus, which provide additional training after someone's passed their test.

But there are other proposals which are far more questionable, such as the idea to fit cars with speed limiters. Preventing drivers from exceeding the speed limit initially sounds like a sensible idea, but I think it's a gimmick which is unlikely to make much difference to the accident rate.

For a start, such devices would obviously do nothing to prevent accidents where speed is not a factor, whether that's poor overtaking, tailgating, lack of observation at junctions, lack of lane discipline or drink and drug driving.

But even where speed is a factor in causing an accident, speed limiters won't make much difference. In many cases, the problem isn't necessarily illegal speeding, but driving too fast for the road or the conditions.

For instance, near to where I live there are a couple of stretches of single-track road with several blind bends. The speed limit on those is actually 60mph, but anyone who goes much above 30mph on those is almost certainly a crazy driver. But a speed limiter wouldn't stop someone from going at a potentially suicidal 50mph.

And nor would speed limiters do anything to stop someone going too fast in fog or ice or snow, even if they're not exceeding the legal limit.

In my view, speed limiters sound like the sort of technical fix beloved of governments looking for a gimmick to pretend they're taking action to deal with a problem. Indeed, it could be argued that speed limiters would actually make the problem worse, as they could lull people into thinking they're driving at a safe speed when they're not.

There are other aspects of the strategy which I'm not too keen on either. Curfews for newly qualified drivers? Let's discriminate against people doing a night shift, shall we?

Or a limit on the number of passengers newly-qualified drivers can carry? Some young drivers have a partner and a couple of kids, so that's them screwed.

I'm a bit more ambivalent about limiting the size of engine which young drivers can drive. I can see the logic of this, as many young drivers do like to get behind the wheel of cars which are too powerful for them which they then lose control of and crash. But it strikes me there would be a significant problem with this, as police are not to know how powerful a car really is just by looking at it, so how are they possibly able to enforce such a provision? And is a 40-year-old in a Ferrari really less dangerous than a 20-year-old in a Subaru Impreza?

Although many of these proposals do have their heart in the right place, I think few if any will make much difference to road safety. The main things which will are the improved driver training referred to above, combined with an encouragement for drivers to adopt an attitude where safety is paramount. We should beware of both technical fixes and ineffective legal measures.

Iraq inquiry: let the light shine in

I was going to do a posting about Gordon Brown's disgraceful decision to hold an inquiry into the Iraq war behind closed doors, but I don't think I have anything to say which has not already been said by, amongst others, David Watts, Caron, Costigan Quist, Paul Reynolds and Willie Rennie. Public scrutiny is the best way to ensure something like this never happens again. Light must be shone on the murky workings of government which led us into this disaster.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Calman: the next steps

Today's final report from the Calman Commission is designed to plot a way forward for devolution in Scotland.

The report itself is OK as far as it goes: it recognises that Scotland needs to be responsible for deciding a greater share of its own finances and it sets out a case for additional powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

The down side is that there are proposals for certain fairly minor responsibilities to be handed back to Westminster. I haven't yet read the full report, only the executive summary, so I don't know the Commission's thinking behind these, but I have to say I am inherently suspicious of any proposal to exercise power further away from the people and I suspect these might be an area of controversy.

I think it is also fair to say that Calman is not a particularly bold vision for the future of devolution. The Scottish Lib Dems, for instance, wish to go far further than is proposed by Calman, with the Scottish Parliament having control over a whole range of taxes, not just the 10p income tax rate and a few minor taxes proposed by Calman. We would also give a much wider range of powers to the Scottish Parliament than Calman envisages. You can find more details of our proposals here.

However, Calman was almost certainly constrained by the need to achieve consensus among all the parties to the commission, with neither the Tories or Labour as keen as the Scottish Lib Dems on an enhaned home rule settlement. It is a tribute to Calman that the final report was unanimous and it is an important landmark that both the Tories and Labour have now agreed to an enhanced role for the Scottish Parliament, including over its own finances.

The question now arises of where we go from here. In my view, there now needs to be a much wider debate about the future of Scottish devolution. Although Calman did make an effort to take evidence from a range of groups, there now needs to be much more public involvement in deciding how we proceed.

And the best way that can happen is if we have a referendum on the proposals, with independence being the other option. I have in the past argued (here and here) that a referendum should wait until we have fully worked out proposals for both an enhanced devolution settlement and for independence. Well, we now have the former. What we need now is for the Gnats to come up with a proposal for independence which is more than just a slogan.

And when they do that, we can have a big argument about it all and then vote on it. Over to you, Mr Salmond.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

PR to aid the BNP? That's a lie, Mr Cameron

Of all the arguments against proportional representation, the laziest one is that it benefits extremist parties such as the hateful BNP. David Cameron rolled out this canard once again today at Prime Minister's Questions, saying that it was a PR system which allowed the BNP to get people elected to the European Parliament.

And in one sense, he does have a point. The party list system used in the European elections is probably the easiest one in which smaller parties can prosper, among them extremists like the BNP.

But there's certainly no easy relationship between even a party list PR system and success for extremist parties like the BNP. If there were, why did the BNP not get anyone elected in 1999 and 2004, when exactly the same system was used for the European elections? The truth is that then not enough people voted for them to be able to win any seats in the European Parliament, whereas this time they did.

And that isn't even the whole story. In Yorkshire and the Humber, this time round the BNP secured fewer votes in total than they did in 2004. But because turnout had dropped significantly and the Labour vote in particular collapsed, this was enough to get them one of the seats on offer.

But the thing is, I am not aware of anybody who thinks we should introduce party list systems for Westminster elections. They are not a great system, as they give far too much power to party machines to determine who is elected. If you look at the systems which are in place across the UK, it doesn't seem to be the case that any of them particularly help parties like the BNP get elected - just the reverse.

For the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the system used is the additional member system, with first past the post constituencies supplemented by regional list top-ups. Both parliaments have now had three elections using this system and not one fascist has ever been elected to them.

It's the same story if you look at STV, the system used for the Scottish local elections. Across the whole of Scotland, not a single BNP councillor was elected in 2007. Compare that to the London Borough of Barking, when the BNP picked up 12 seats in 2006 - under first past the post. And look at the Republic of Ireland - they have NEVER had a fascist party elected to the Dail and I've looked at all their election results back to 1937.

Indeed, because there is no relationship between votes and seats under first past the post, the BNP often find it quite easy to win seats on quite low percentages of the vote, especially in areas which have low turnout and/or have a history of being run by a single party for a long time (eg Burnley and Barking).

At a national level, the only reason the BNP has never had someone elected to the Westminster parliament is because its vote is not sufficiently concentrated to allow it to win such seats. If the BNP all piled in to just a few seats, they could easily get people elected to Westminster - and probably on a lower percentage of the national vote than they would require to win seats in a PR election.

And the basic point is that there is no electoral system which can guarantee that extremist parties are excluded. Under any system, if people vote for them in enough numbers, they will win seats. The key thing is not to try and rig electoral systems to stop them, but to address the reasons why people are voting for fascists in the first place. And that has far more to do with a sense of alienation and frustration than it has to do with the electoral system used.

Indeed, the fact that first past the post is associated with single party majority government, - often the same for decades at a time, especially at a local level - is, I would suggest, far more likely to create the conditions under which fascist parties can thrive than a system where people know their votes will count.

I would say the evidence contradicts Mr Cameron's claim: fascist parties are more likely to get a foothold under first past the post, rather than under the various PR systems used in the UK. But it's unlikely to stop Cameron from repeatedly trotting out the lie that PR benefits the BNP. And that lie must be repeatedly exposed for the nonsense it is.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Brown the Reformer is fiction

The expected announcement tomorrow by Gordon Brown that there will be a look at electoral reform is another sign that he just doesn't have a clue about what he's doing.

For a start, the issue's only going to be looked at by his 'Democratic Renewal Committee', an Orwellian sounding body which is just a fancy name for a ministerial committee. Does Brown not understand the anger there is about the failures of our political system? Does he really believe that just having the issue looked at by a group of his hand-picked cronies is the way forward, rather than giving people more of a sense of ownership and involvement in their own political system?

I could also ask why Labour's even bothering to have a review of the electoral system. Didn't they have one 10 years ago, the Jenkins Commission, which recommended introducing AV+ (the alternative vote supplemented by a regional top-up party list system)? Wasn't it Labour Party policy to have a referendum on these proposals, a pledge which they conveniently dropped (due in no small part to the opposition within the Cabinet of one G Brown)?

And according to the Beeb, Brown's apparently wanting his review to come up with a recommendation for plain AV, with no top-up. Nothing like prejudging your own review, is there?

But if that is Brown's conclusion, it shows why he just doesn't have a clue about electoral reform, and the wider constitutional agenda. AV is often LESS proportional than first past the post, is MORE likely to exaggerate swings between parties, DOES NOT allow voters to choose between candidates from the same party and does ALMOST NOTHING to solve the problem of MPs with safe seats. In 1997, for instance, it's very likely that had the election been held under AV, it would have produced a LARGER Labour majority, with the Tories suffering a near wipeout.

I have to say, in any referendum on electoral reform, I would vote to retain first past the post rather than have a switch to pure AV. I could just about live with AV+, although I wouldn't have any enthusiasm for it.

But I believe there's only one system which really empowers voters and that's the single transferable vote, as used in Ireland (north and south) and in local elections in Scotland. STV allows voters to choose between candidates from the same party, or from different parties, is roughly proportional and retains and enhances a link between a geographical area and its representatives, by allowing voters a choice of representatives they can approach with a problem.

If Brown were serious about electoral reform, this would be the system he would propose. But of course, he isn't. He just wants to be seen as making noises about reform, but without a timetable or even a firm commitment actually to do anything. Brown the Reformer is a fictitious character.

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