Eyes north to Greenland

November 25, 2008

Today is the day of Greenland’s referendum on wresting more powers from Denmark, in a move that is seen as a precursor to full independence for the Arctic island.

Greenland flag

A yes vote would see key economic powers move from Copenhagen to the Greenland Parliament and decrease Greenland’s dependence on the annual block grant of 472 million euros it receives from Denmark.

Greenland would also take control of its oil resources and mineral wealth, although the current referendum deal leaves the possibility of a Danish share when annual oil revenue exceeds $12.6 million. Estimates say north east Greenland might have around 30 billion barrels of oil and gas. Climate change is making access to those resources much easier and cheaper. One report quotes a Greenlander looking forward to having a wine industry in the near future!

Greenlandic would be recognised as the country’s official language. It is spoken by the vast majority (around 50 000) of the population.

There are only around 57 000 people in Greenland. Around 39 000 are eligible to vote in the referendum.

A ‘yes vote’ is widely expected. It is said that about three quarters of the voters are already decided on voting for more autonomy.

The expected change in autonomy will then be implemented on the 21st June 2009; the day instigated a few years after devolution in 1983 as the National Day of the country. It also voted that same year to leave the EU in a referendum, having previously joined as part of Denmark.

The First Minister of Greenland, Hans Enoksen, supports the ‘Yes vote’.

He expects that with more fiscal autonomy the demand for full independence will increase.

“Agreeing on self-rule is the only road forward,” he said, pointing out that “the Greenlandic people have wished for many years to be more independent.”

He set out his timetable for full independence:

“Greenland will be independent in 12 years … for my 65th birthday.”

Other politicans share this broad timescale. Lars Emil Johansen, one of two Greenlandic members of the Danish parliament, says he dreams the day will come by 2021, in time for the 300th anniversary of Denmark’s colonisation of Greenland.

“Of course we can be the masters of our own destiny and fly on our own wings”

His advisor Hans Jakob Helms agrees:

“Home rule was a compromise,” Helms said. “It’s a simple fact that home rule has reached its limit and there’s a need for more room for self-government.”

Around 300 years of a political union? The parallels with Scotland and the rest of the UK are striking. And similarly to the planned 2010 referendum in Scotland, the Greenland referendum is also non-binding. However the Danish Government will respect the wishes of the Greenlanders.

And like Scotland, Greenland has its own Unionist doubters of independence.

The Greenland Democratic Party are against further devolution – they are campaigning for a ‘No vote’ – and against full independence:

Palle Christiansen, the political spokesperson of the Democrats, who are part of Greenland’s opposition, warned against hurrying the process, noting that ‘self-rule brings with it more than just oil revenues.’

Christiansen cited the administration of judicial affairs as just one area which would incur major costs on the Greenlandic government.

And a minority of members of the Siumut Party have openly dismissed talk of independence, much to their party’s disgust:

“Greenland will never be an independent state,” Finn Lynge recently stated, much to the dismay of his Siumut party, which is part of the government coalition and strongly in favour of a “yes” vote in the referendum.

Its not great times for the government coalition. It may be falling apart under scrutiny from the Greenland Audit Commission, which might result in the referendum result becoming a springboard for a subsequent snap General Election in the country.

“There are only between 50,000 and 60,000 of us living here in geographically and climatically extreme conditions. With such a tiny population it is impossible to provide the human contributions needed to turn Greenland into a modern and independent state,” Finn Lynge said.

Greenland has many social problems like alcoholism and a high suicide rate.

“No one can build an independent state on heavy drinking”, Finn Lynge has stated.

So will the Unionists win the day?

Will the credit crunch and the example of their neighbour Iceland’s financial troubles persuade the Greenlanders to vote against further powers for their Parliament?

We’ll all need to wait and see.

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English pauses for English clauses

June 11, 2008

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke, has headed the Democracy Taskforce; a Conservative think-tank designed to propose solutions to outstanding problems. The idea would then be that these solutions may become Conservative policy for the next Conservative Government.

One of the outstanding problems Ken Clarke has been looking at is the West Lothian Question; since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, MPs from Scotland can vote on English laws but MPs from England cannot vote on Scottish laws. This is because it is the Scottish Parliament and its MSPs now pass the majority of Scottish laws, not the Westminster MPs. Only the non-devolved powers like defence and foreign policy are retained by Westminster.

Ken Clarke’s solution is that although Scottish MPs can vote on English only legislation, they are barred from voting at the committee stage and amendments can be made by English MPs; everyone can once again vote in the final third stage with an undertaking from the Scots that they won’t vote on the English amendments.

It has been dubbed ‘English pauses for English clauses’.

One of the main drawbacks of this plan is that it in effect creates a two-tier class of MP; the Scottish MPs being the lower class. How long the union could last in such an arrangement remains to be seen.

It would lead to a situation where Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, could no longer vote on English matters. Fair enough you might say. But what are the chances that a Scottish MP could ever become Prime Minister of the UK in the future under this arrangement? That a UK political party would elect a Scottish leader knowing that he would be removed from legislation affecting England? Chances: nil.

In such a situation, it would thus make such a democratic deficit for the Scots that the Union would have to end. It would effectively say to the Scots, well you could stand as MP in an election or you can vote for whatever MP you want but you or they will never become Prime Minister. Not only would our MPs be treated as second-class MPs at Westminster, but our vote and our citizenship of the UK would also be second-class.

Ken Clarke’s Democracy Taskforce proposes to limit our democracy!

There are many objectors to the proposal though. Fellow blogger Iain Dale saysthis:-

“The phrases ‘half baked’ and ‘dog’s breakfast’ come to mind. This is not a long term solution to something which even Scottish politicians recognise is a problem and it’s not even a half way house. It reeks of a measure designed to placate rather than solve. And as usual with these things it won’t even do that.

Those of us – and there a growing number – who believe that England deserves parity in the constitutional settlement will think it decidedly odd (and wrong) that Scottish MPs will retain ANY say in English only legislation. To trumpet the fact that they won’t be able to vote on the Committee Stage of a Bill or reverse any amendments on Third Reading is a sop.”

To my mind, there are only two ways forward. For England to receive parity in the constitutional settlement, there must be an English Parliament.

The other alternative is of course independence for Scotland, and if they want it the other nations of the UK.

‘English pauses for English causes’ will create two-tiers of MPs, and make Scots second-class citizens of the UK.

If the Conservatives do adopt this as policy, the Union will be all but over when the Conservatives win the next Westminster election as predicted.

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Westminster clouds the issue

June 7, 2008

Brian Donohoe, the Ayrshire MP – who controversially wants even more rain in the West of Scotland! – quoted here, has been recently explaining his views on why a list MSP should get less money than a constituency MSP in the Scottish Parliament.

Speaking on STV’s Politics Now show he argued that it seemed to him that the list MSPs do less work than their constituency colleagues, and there should be a two-tier system of MSPs in all but name.

One thing is striking about these comments. Mr. Donohoe has never been a Member of the Scottish Parliament; either as a list or constituency MSP. He is in no position to give an informed comment on these matters.

Gradually the conversation was brought round to Scottish MPs in Westminster.

Michael Crow asked him why he should get the same pay as an English MP. After all, he argued, English MPs represent their constituents for everything; in Scotland a great deal of the Westminster Parliament’s responsibility has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Ah, Mr. Donohoe replied but the recent boundary changes have meant that my constituency has increased and so my workload has also increased. This obviously implied that the constituency increase compensated for the reduction of responsibility.

Besides, he argued, if a “wee wummin” mistakenly wandered into his MP office, instead of an MSP office, and complained about housing – a devolved matter – he would still write a letter to the council or whoever.

I’m sure MSPs similarly deal with any mistaken constituents’ non-devolved issues in the same way. That argument hardly stands up to scrutiny. They wouldn’t use that to justify their payscale.

Alas, Michael Crow left it at that, not bothering to argue.

He missed the obvious point that the Westminster boundary changes in 2005 meant that the Scottish constituencys were increased to bring them into line with those in England. (Previously Scottish constituencys were smaller due to the lower population density, otherwise causing very large geographical constituencys; and to compensate for Scotland being so remote from Westminster. The creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 changed this thinking.)

Now all Scottish Westminster constituencys have around the same population has their English counterparts. We are comparing like for like, no matter what Brian Donohoe says.

So, an English MP is responsible for all matters of its constituents, while the Scottish MP is only responsible for those matters not devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Of course, Brian Donohoe and the other unionist Scottish MPs would always accept this as part of the devolution settlement, but it is hardly fair to the English MPs.

How to sort this anomaly?

A two-tier system of MPs? Less money for the Scottish Westminster MPs? That would be an option.

In practice though, that wouldn’t work. It would cause resentment and virtually guarantee the breakup of the Union. Scottish MPs could also argue that they have much greater travelling distances to Westminster and need the extra revenue.

It suggests Brian Donohoe should keep out of the debate over two-tier MSPs at the Scottish Parliament, if he wanted to keep his salary intact at Westminster. A two-tier system would be unacceptable both in Holyrood or Westminster.

What about reducing the number of Scottish MPs again? This time the extra constituency population would compensate for the reduced responsibility that the Scottish MPs have.

I doubt that would work either. Not only would it again fuel resentment and probably break the Union, but it would make a mockery of the last boundary changes implemented so recently.

Also under the Treaty of the Union, Scotland is guaranteed at least 45 MPs; any number below that would break the treaty and end the union. The 45 Scottish MPs granted were in comparison to the 486 English MPs, 27 Welsh Mps and 100 Irish MPs in 1707.

Since 1922 when the Republic of Ireland left leaving Northern Ireland, the no. of MPs for England has risen from 492 to 529 (533 next election); for Wales 36 to 40; for Northern Ireland 13 to 18; only Scotland has decreased 74 to 59.

Only 59 MPs out of a total of 646 MPs (next election 650) at Westminster is already straining the Union now. Scotland’s influence in the Union has been greatly diminished and any further reduction would negate Scotland’s role being part of it.

An English Parliament would be an alternative, handling devolved issues just like the Scottish Parliament; leaving Westminster for non-devolved matters. This would be a neat solution, ending the call for English votes on English matters, and solving the West Lothian Question. Whether the union could survive a powerful English Parliament remains to be seen, however. It is struggling to survive the devolved governments it already has.

Less powerful parliaments? Federalism as argued by the Liberal Democrats, splitting England into devolved regions. The northeast of England was seen as most favourable to the idea, and was seen as a test case before extending the concept to the rest of England. A referendum was held in 2004 for a northeast Assembly. The No vote was 78%. Federalism is not wanted by England any time soon.

The neatest solution would be independence for all countries in the UK. The Westminster parliament would just become the English Parliament and all those political grievances throughout the UK towards our separate Parliaments would instantly end. We’ll all stop moaning at each other and behave like good neighbours again.

Who needs the rain?!!

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