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Enough of the Scottish subsidy myth - Scotland pays its way in the Union

Scotland pays its way in the Union - it's time the London commentariat acknowledged that.

The notion that Scottish public services are subsidised by English taxpayers has become so commonplace in UK politics that not even David Dimbleby, the supposedly neutral presenter of BBC Question Time, thinks twice about repeating it. During an exchange on a recent show with Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson about her decision to vote as a Scottish MP to impose tuition fees on English students, Dimbleby said, "You voted for England to have fees, whereas Scotland, as we know, with the amount of money that comes from England, doesn't need to have them."
 
This view is based on the discrepancy between levels of public spending per head of the population in Scotland and England. According to the Treasury's latest Public Expenditure Statistics, Scots gets an average of £10,212 spent on them every year by the UK government, compared with around £8,588 -- £1,624 less -- for people in England.

In line with narrative of the Scottish welfare subsidy, the extra cash allows Scotland to provide its students with free higher education, its elderly with free personal care and concessionary travel, and its sick with free prescription medication, while their English equivalents are forced to go without.
 
This so-called "Union dividend" is also used by many London-based journalists and politicians -- many of whom would describe themselves as social democrats -- who argue that current levels of public expenditure in Scotland would be unsustainable were it to break away and become an independent country.
 
Yet, if the London commentariat took the time to examine the figures a little more closely, they would discover what a large number people north of the border already know: not only does Scotland more than pay its way in the Union, but its overall fiscal position would actually be stronger as a fully sovereign nation.
 
Let's tackle the subsidy charge first. Scots represent 8.4 per cent of the UK's total population, but they generate 9.4 per cent of its annual revenues in tax -- equivalent to £1,000 extra per person. The remaining £624 is easily accounted for by decades of UK government under-spending in Scotland on defence and on other items which are not routinely broken down by region, such as foreign office services.
 
Second, there's the claim that Scotland's "bloated" welfare state could not be sustained outside the Union. This is nonsense. Including its per capita share of revenues from North Sea oil and gas production, Scotland's public expenditure probably does not exceed the OECD average and is almost certainly lower than that of the Scandinavian social democracies. The fact that the Treasury cynically refuses to class those revenues as part of Scotland's overall annual economic output inflates the level of public sector expenditure as a proportion of GDP relative to that of the private sector.
 
Finally, one of the most common -- and least well-considered -- claims made by supporters of the Union is that the 2008 global financial meltdown shattered the economic case for independence. How, they argue, would the economy of tiny, independent Scotland have been able to cope with the burden of debt needed to rescue its financial sector from collapse? It wouldn't, of course, but according to George Walker, professor of financial regulation and policy at the University of Glasgow, Scotland would only have had to take on a proportion of the total cost of the bail-out based on the subsidiaries and business operations of HBOS and RBS in Scotland. This would probably amount to no more than 5 per cent.
 
For the sake of argument, nationalists might also wish to note that Scotland's 2009 - 2010 deficit was, at 6.8 per cent of GDP, a full 3 per cent lower than England's, and that the likely defence expenditure of an independent Scotland would, at around $1.8bn per year in line with Nordic average, be roughly £1bn less than what the UK currently spends on its behalf.
 
But why should Unionists let the economic facts ruin the image they have built up of Scotland as a nation of selfish, indulged welfare "mendicants"?The subsidy myth is too politically useful to be simply abandoned. Of course, if they ever do come to terms with the reality that Scotland could survive on its own - and even prosper - it will probably be too late anyway.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.