Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Changing The Rules of The Game

The 1.6 million Scots who voted for independence in September 2014, the 17.4 million Brits who voted for Brexit in June this year and the 62.5 million Americans who voted for Trump last month all share something in common: they want to see the rules of the game dramatically changed.

If, like me, you’re unsettled by this, maybe ask yourself how well the current rules of the game have suited you and – perhaps more importantly - what are you doing to make the rules fairer?

If you’re broadly successful and content with life, chances are the rules have suited you pretty well. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve had it easy, that you haven’t had to work hard to get to where you are.  But it probably does mean that you have an aversion to the idea of tearing up the rule book. After all, who wants the rules to change just when they’ve sussed out how to play the game?

It's traditionally been easy to remain complacent about the need for change, because those with voices most likely to be heard tend to be those for whom the current system works. Newspaper editors, media personalities, enigmatic politicians, successful business people – most of them are where they are because they've learned how to play the game well. The reason they’re in a position to be heard - and perhaps drive change - is also the reason why many have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

But the truth is we have both a moral obligation and a pragmatic incentive to keep changing the rules of the game so they’re fairer for all. The moral imperative has always been there, but maybe these recent votes will serve to shake the more complacent into pragmatic action. Change is coming, the only question really is who will be the architects of that change?

Take today's speech by Scottish Labout leader Kezia Dugdale calling for a new federal "Act of Union". It will be sniffed at by those on one side who fear change and those on the other who reject any proposal that falls short of full independence. But to resist any change is to ignore the 1.6 million people who voted Yes; to insist independence is the only acceptable option is to ignore the 2.0 million who voted No. The rules of the game need to change - personally I think it's encouraging to see Scottish Labour seeking a constructive solution.

Similarly, those who fight tooth and nail against progressive taxation measures and modest steps to improve wealth distribution would do well to compare the “injustice” of paying a bit more tax with the injustices of, to name but a few: tax avoidance, excessive executive pay, exploitative employment contracts, low wages, the educational attainment gap, food poverty, child poverty and urban deprivation.

Look at the evidence of our recent plebiscites: our failure to keep changing the rules of the game for the better has created a large body of people who feel any change must be better than what they’ve currently got.

This has created an opportunity for Machiavellian chancers to grasp for power by appealing to the disenfranchised and malcontented. The likes of the SNP, Farage and Trump offer voters a chance to dramatically change the rules of the game and take a free swing at the liberal elite into the bargain.

To be fair to them, these narrow-minded, populist policy peddling fundamentalists do genuinely want to change the rules of the game. It's just that their objective is to gain more power for themselves with little or no concern for the price paid by others.

If we are currently ruled by a "liberal elite", let's hope that they realise before it's too late that their failure to keep changing the rules of the game for the better opens the door for the "illiberal elite" to replace them.


Iain Roberts said...

I'm a fan of this blog and hold no brief for the SNP. But it seems fair to note they place themselves on the social democratic centre-left, and are very much more responsible and less scary than the Farage/Trump/Le Pen demagogues on the far right.

LaizyDaizey said...

Wonderful piece, best I've read on the puzzle of what's going on out there. Still think there's a need to point out that change will no longer be welcomed when it rebounds badly on those who voted for it. There's a common misconception at work that things are so bad they can't get worse. They damn well can and will.

Also there'a a need to address the role of social media in the spread of fake news, especially the corporate-sponsored variety resulting in the distraction of cyber-slanging matches and hatefests while quietly removing the remains of any real civil liberty and freedom of speech.

But you've pinpointed the misery of having lived in a safely liberal world and now watching as it is torched in front of our eyes. It pays to have clear thinking in times like these.

George said...

I really liked this blog, well written and thought provoking. However I would say it's slightly harsh to lump in the SNP alongside Faraga and Trump. Yes, they are absolutely Machiavellian chancers. But I think they are offering a different alternative to Farage and Trump.

Unknown said...

"changing the rules of the game so they’re fairer for all".

Not fairer to all Kevin. But heavily weighted to a certain segment of an entitlement society. An entitlement society that will never be satisfied regardless of how much you feed them. Those who believe that somehow doing nothing, producing nothing and contributing nothing to society somehow entitles them to a living. That somehow even though they didn’t try at school or who decided to pump out kids whilst having no income that somehow they are entitled to be supported.

I’m one of those who would fight tooth and nail against so called progressive taxation as I’m only employed in one job and a one household income due to young kids. I don’t have alternative revenue streams or businesses. Due to work I don’t see my children 6 months of the year and don’t enjoy the fruits of society’s benefits as much as most.

I have to travel to and work in the highest risk countries in the world where I see real poverty. Real lack of opportunity. Real corruption. Where there is no NHS. Where there is no access to social justice. Where our version of “urban deprivation” (caused by and large by those who live there) would make a Somali, Pakistani, Afghan, Iraqi, Nigerian and Eritrean laugh. Where child mortality is in your face all for the lack of public health.

You mention “tax avoidance” (which as you know is utterly legal) yet fail to address the mass “tax evasion” by traders such as gardeners, window cleaners, plumbers, carpenters, electricians who have more liquid cash and more opportunities to evade tax than I do as an employee.

I’m not for one minute saying there shouldn’t be a welfare system or that ways should not be looked at to improve it in order to help those who CANNOT help themselves. But the only thing that needs recalibrated is the mindset of our weak & entitlement society and not the taxation system or the Union.

Keith Macdonald said...

You are right to say that those who would claim to be liberal in their politics have tended to ignore the interests of those at or near the bottom of our society. There is of course , as you say, a natural tendency to see society as a reflection of oneself and to assume that others share our position and views. It is asking a lot for people to go out and seek the areas of pressing difficulties. That was perhaps a job for the media and clearly not one that was well performed on the whole. A bit less so called "reality TV " and a bit more actual reality would have been useful.

That complacency , if not indifference , has helped to bring us to our present , quite dangerous , situation and has , as you say , opened the door for a motley crew of fanatics and charlatans. There will have to be a lot of rethinking and reorganising and I certainly do not have a complete programme for that. I want to make two points though.

Language is very important ,particularly when terms are so widely used that no one questions what they really mean. I think that has happened to "liberal elite". I have challenged its use in a number of newspaper comment slots and when I ask those who use it to say who it consists of I tend to get no answer. I suspect a lot on the right use it without being at all fussy about what it actually means but simply as a very handy term of abuse. This has been so widely accepted that when Donald Trump , for example . talks about the liberal elite a lot of people think he must be a doughty opponent of elites. In fact , by most definitions , he has been a member of an elite all his life and is surrounded likewise by others.

The political right will continue to use the term because it has proved so fruitful for them but I am not sure the rest of us should use it unless we are very clear what it means and we should be willing to challenge its use in the media and seek clear definition.

My second point is about the situation in the UK. One of the particular aspects of this is surely the grotesquely unbalanced nature of the UK economy - in many ways but particularly geographically. The whole economic impetus of the country lies in London and the South East. This leads to overdevelopment and population pressure there and the opposite in e.g. Scotland and the North of England - in both cases leading to public unhappiness. In my view there will have to be a large transfer of spending on economic infrastructure , particularly transport and education . away from the South East. For example why force the issue of building a new runway there when there is unused capacity at Manchester. why not link Scotland and other cities in the North and Midlands to that airport by better rail links ?

All the UK's top universities are in the South East with the inevitable spin off of new industries. There are many good universities in the rest of the country but they need investment.

Kevin Hague said...

Iain & George

I'm not saying the SNO are "the same" as Trump/Farage (I agree with you both) - my point is only that they are similar insofar as they are all taking advantage of a large body of the population who think "any change must be better than this"

Kevin Hague said...


if I may be so bold: my thesis is that your attitude (which i recognise is shared by many)has led to a system that leaves too many feeling disenfranchised and disgruntled, has created a body of voters ripe for exploitation by those peddling miracle cures based on "any change is better than this" - if we don't do more to make the system fairer, we shouldn't be surprised when "protest votes" become the driver of political change we might not like. Would serve us right.

Kevin Hague said...

Keith - I agree with you about the term "liberal elite", that's partly why I suggested that the logical alternative is the "illiberal elite" which sounds kind of worse to me.

That notwithstanding. if the elite is "a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society" then I think I quite like the idea of people like that being in positions of power!

Unknown said...

Iain, I think where the SNP place themselves and where their actions place them are 2 different things. I do agree that their rhetoric is less scary, though

Terry Summers said...

Iain & George,
The SNP are political chameleon who will adopt whatever shade of politics that will lead to their goal of Independence. A brief look at the historical positions from aligning themselves with the Nazi regime in WWII to bringing down the Callaghan Gov and ushering in Thatcher in 1970's. They feign left of Centre politics whilst implementing populist policies which benefit the middle class at the detriment of the poor.
Well said, change is required.
I am in favour of the change that was begun by the founders of the Labour party with their Home Rule campaigns at the beginning of 20th Cent. and devolved parliaments they created at its end should be continued towards a federal structure in which as much power as is feasible to be devolved from the centre, whilst still maintaining a viable, strong sovereign state. The devolution of power should ideally go through devolved assemblies into local authority and beyond to deliver power to communities.

Keith Macdonald said...

I would strongly advise against any talk of an elite identified with liberal ideas. We need to get across to people that liberalism is just as much about equality as freedom - in other words it is freedom for all , not just those who can afford to take advantage of it. As a guide to how societies should aim to operate I don't think that anyone has improved on Liberte . Egalite , Fraternite.

In the modern world ideas and the language that expresses them have to be simple and clear and repeated endlessly so that they have a chance of penetration.

Drew said...

I agree wholeheartedly with this blog and Labour's plan for a new Federal Act of Union.

They have 'borrowed' this slightly from a paper the Lib Dems announced back around 2012 I think but it is a sensible step in the right direction.

I've always thought Federalism is the most realistic and workable way to satisfy the majority of people in the country like myself who are not hardline Unionists or Nationalists.

I would take issue with your final points however:

'This has created an opportunity for Machiavellian chancers to grasp for power by appealing to the disenfranchised and malcontented. The likes of the SNP, Farage and Trump offer voters a chance to dramatically change the rules of the game and take a free swing at the liberal elite into the bargain.'

I've read many articles and opinion pieces about the sudden, unexpected return of nationalism, populism and the so-called 'post-truth politics' and the decline of rational thinking.

But the rules of the game haven't changed at all sadly, it is the way they always were.

The SNP, Farage and Trump are not new phenomenom but we are reverting to type. Since the dawn of communication and written language Kings, Governments and advertisers have targetted people's natural tendencies to react with their emotions, as opposed to 'rational' thought.

I'm not going to claim to be in expert in philosophy but arguably Scotland's leading Enlightenment figure David Hume I think argued that our knowledge and understanding of the world must accept mankind's natural state is to be driven by emotions, our senses, personal experience, memory and imagination before applying reasoning and logic.

That was nearly 275 years ago and it is still true to this day.

Most conflicts are about religion or identity and not economics. From the religious wars in Britain in the 16th-18th century, up until the 20th century troubles in Ireland.

People talk about Western liberal democracy and peace and security across Europe that held since after World War 2 but people seem to forget that Spain, Greece and Portugal were dictatorships until the 1970s and the Greek/Turkey conflict over Cyprus.

In reality, liberal politics has only really gained the upper hand since the 1960s onwards, from civil rights and liberal social values like same sex relationships and equality legislation to the fall of the Berlin Wall/Communism reaching a high point into the 1990s before a gradual decline this century, starting with 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq.

50 years or so is a tiny sliver of human history. Normal internal relations is a state of conflict or the threat of conflict.

Anonymous said...

Top post and some really good comments.

My solution is far simpler than federalism/a new Act of Union - which, I believe, with the attendant extra bureaucracy and additional costs would only serve to alienate the taxpayer even further. I would simply cut the pay of MPs/MSPs down to the national average - at the moment their pay is such that as soon as they are elected they are catapulted into the top echelons of earners in their constituencies, thus immediately disconnecting them from the cares of the ordinary voter. For example, whether or not the local library remains open no longer has a direct impact on them, as they can afford to buy any books they want from Amazon; immigration has absolutely no effect on them or the area in which they live; they can take out private health insurance and thus avoid the creaking NHS; and they can send their kids to private school, thus it becomes only a choice, not a necessity, to send them to the rubbish state school.

And for anyone who argues, 'If you pay peanuts you get monkeys', I would point out that MPs did not get any pay until 1911, so obviously all the mighty politicians before then - Gladstone, Disraeli, Peel, and, up until 1911, Asquith, Lloyd George, Balfour, Churchill etc etc were not getting an MP's salary. Also, there is this: MPs' pay was about the average wage in the 1970s, and has grown exponentially since. So, as counter-intuitive as this might seem, there actually appears to be a direct correlation between MPs' pay going up, and the quality of MPs going down (assuming that the quality of our representatives was better in the 70s and 80s than it is now). This could be down to my point above: if MPs no longer have skin in the game, why push themselves?

Along with the pay cut, I would allow MPs/MSPs to have outside earnings - both to supplement their incomes if they so wished, and to keep them in touch with reality.

(I came up with this idea on watching the debate in Parliament the day after the Brexit vote: most of the Labour MPs were acting like a bunch of spoiled brats, and were basically accusing those who voted leave of being thick and racist. It was revolting - but it did make it clear to me that these people, who are supposed to be representing the working classes, are completely divorced from the reality of life for most Britons - and they are divorced from it because they are paid too much.)

Alastair McIntyre said...

I often wonder if we could do away with political parties and simply vote for individuals. At the moment we see that several SNP MSP's voted to leave and several others would have preferred voting to leave but followed the party line and voted to remain.

And so if we didn't have political parties might this be a better way forward?

Also we should be allowed to vote out our MSP if we feel they are not performing as we expected. Like we should be able to force a by-election.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think there is a pressing need to de-centralise the UK and update the union into a fully federal system - after all it seems to work in other disparate states that are much more pluralist than the UK. Germany, Switzerland for example.

The real problem is that Liberalism (the Enlightened - primacy of the individual/ rights) kind has become conflated with the malign aspects of globalisation and the effects of technological change on employment. In order to survive Liberalism needs to reconfigure itself around those who have been left behind who have little to lose so opt for easy populist promises - promises that can and never will be realised as those manipulating the populist sentiment have no intention of changing the rules of game away from their favour (See SNP, Trump, Putin, Le Pen, Xi Jinping etc etc...) Liberals used to be the champion of the poor and disenfranchised, not just materially but in identity also. But unfortunately have drifted away ignoring those they profess to champion and silencing them. e.g) The loss of identity and agency as a consequence of fast mass economic migration is just one area of impotency. Liberals now need to reclaim this ground once again and remind themselves of their initial purpose and history. The world is going through a period of change, the old has yet to die and the new has yet to be born. These sporadic fault lines in history are always dangerous and now more than ever, Liberals need to 'muscular'. And it isn't all doom and gloom, in crisis their lies opportunity - the building of cosmopolitan transnational institutions to counter the malign aspects of globalisation is still an ongoing process. e.g.) The recent G20/ IMF/ World Bank mutterings on closing tax havens - the Oxfam suggestions that tax avoidance be a UN designated power/ agency is positive stuff. It is ironic that the actual way to empower those disenfranchised is through transnational Liberal cooperation, not a regression into nations and closed sovereignty - e.g) Canada will not close it's tax havens unless Britain, the US, China and so on also do so. Liberals need to remind themselves of their Utilitarian root.

Another problem is the level of debate and the inability of those with good ideas to put their message across among all the 'image' politicos. Those who used politics as an extension of their biz for ugly people. We need more Charles Kennedy and less shouty 'activists'.

JS Mill...200 years ago, plus ca change.

“No longer enslaved or made dependent by force of law, the great majority are so by force of poverty; they are still chained to a place, to an occupation, and to conformity with the will of an employer, and debarred, by the accident of birth both from the enjoyments, and from the mental and moral advantages, which others inherit without exertion and independently of desert. That this is an evil equal to almost any of those against which mankind have hitherto struggled, the poor are not wrong in believing. Is it a necessary evil? They are told so by, those who do not feel it---by those who have gained the prizes in the lottery of life. But it was also said that slavery, that despotism, that all the privileges of oligarchy, were necessary.”

Wildgoose said...

True Federalism would recognise that in addition to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland there was also a nation called ENGLAND.

Kezia Dugdale (and her old boss Gordon Brown) only ever talk about vague "regions of the UK", only being interested in deliberately balkanising the oldest nation state in Europe - ENGLAND.

Like the majority of the English I would far rather break up the Union than break up my country.

And that is why "Federalism" is a non-starter. It's not on offer and never has been.

I actually think it would work - England may be larger than the other components but its size would be irrelevant because an English Parliament could only legislate for England alone. And it would end the abomination whereby Laws in England are interfered with by Scots and Irish MPs who have their own separate legal systems over which English MPs have no say.

Furthermore it would be helpful to have clearly delineated Federal matters that were UK-wide responsibilities such as Defence and Foreign Relations.

But like I said, it's not on offer. Senior Scots only ever dismiss England as "regions of the UK" and are only interested in setting up a UK which they can dominate to England's detriment.

The sooner the Union breaks up the more amicably we can do it thereby minimising the long term harm. It's a shame, but that shouldn't stop people from recognising that the ties that used to bind us have now been broken. It's over. We just need to set the date for the divorce.

Anonymous said...


What you're describing has been called "Global Trumpism" by a political scientist called Mark Blyth.


Anonymous said...

Kevin and readers,

Here is an interesting take on the current bout of populism in Europe and US and of course our very own Scottish brand...I suspect some will be nodding furiously in recognition at the criteria the article sets out for identifying populist government.

Andrew Veitch said...

Personally I've always been a fan of federalism. The only problem is that it is staggering unpopular in England. There's a violently negative reaction to another level of government and people also strongly object to diluting the Westminster Parliament's sovereignty.

The Blair government had a referendum on which federalism was roundly rejected despite the best efforts of John Prescott.

So in short I would file federalism along with world government by the UN – it's something I personally quite like but is vanishingly unlikely to happen.