A British Union

Beware the Ides of March.

Nicolas Sturgeon managed to upstage Theresa May’s parliamentary triumph yesterday (the passage of an unamended bill authorising her to trigger Article 50 taking Britain out of the EU) by calling for a second Scottish independence referendum, less than 3 years after losing the first one.

Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Scots (65%) don’t want another referendum, Sturgeon clearly felt support for Scottish independence (and/or the Scottish National Party) ebbing away and, in the fallout of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, determined to seize what is perhaps the best chance for Scottish independence in the foreseeable future.  Even so, the headwinds are strong: thanks to collapsing oil prices, Scotland is in a much worse economic position than it was 3 years ago (an independent Scotland would currently have the largest deficit in Europe) and the prospect of being a relatively small country existing (at ... Read More

Looking ahead to 2017

Well, no one can accuse 2016 of being boring.  I managed to get the big calls right – I predicted back in November 2015 that Trump would become president, and thought that Britain would vote to leave the EU (in both cases, reluctant urbanites were up against an enthusiastic (and angry) countryside, and the countryside won).  But when your predictions align with your preferences you probably can’t claim too much credit!


Looking ahead to some of the political events of 2017, it’s harder to have a sense of the likely outcome.  Proportional representation systems like Italy’s are designed to prevent meaningful change, so the effect of the recent constitutional referendum on Italian politics (which tends to be all froth and no substance) is likely to be limited.  France’s presidential elections pose a greater chance of political disruption.  Although it’s hard to imagine the National Front actually winning the election, as with Trump and Brexit there is once again the potential ... Read More

Who’s afraid of a big bad recount?

Funny how everyone was concerned that Trump might not accept the results of the election, when all along it was Green Party candidate Jill Stein we had to worry about.

As you’ll know, Dr. Stein has been raising money to request recounts in the three mid-western states that propelled Trump to victory: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.  The deadline for submitting a recount request in Wisconsin was 5pm last Friday, and Stein managed to lodger her petition there with 90 minutes to spare.  So there will definitely be a recount in Wisconsin.  Deadlines for challenging the results in Pennsylvania and Michigan are today and Wednesday, respectively.

The 2000 Florida recount was a formative experience for me and for many others of my generation.  Any mention of a recount brings up the spectre of hanging chads and divided Supreme Court decisions.  Despite the fact that the recount didn’t change the outcome of the election ... Read More

Britain and the E.U.: a loveless marriage

Why do people settle?

So many people end up in relationships which rock along without passion, or jobs which pay the bills but are at best a way to kill time.

Of course there are lots of reasons: the need for money, family obligations, children or just an unawareness or inability to believe that things could be different.  But I reckon the biggest reasons we settle are inertia and loss aversion: we prefer not to do today what can be done tomorrow, and choose the devils we know to those we can imagine.

Inertia and loss aversion are pretty much the only reasons Britain has been given for staying in the E.U.  David Cameron, desperately trying to keep Britain in (and keep his job) has repeatedly told us all that’s wrong with the E.U.  “But we must reform the E.U. from within – the British aren’t quitters!”  Hardly a positive case.  And Jeremy Corbyn, ... Read More

Flags of Our Fathers

The day after the shooting in Charleston, one of the British tabloids led with the headline “America’s Shame”.  Reading that headline, it struck me that describing the actions of a lone, hate-filled shooter as bringing shame upon a nation of 300 million people is, in one sense, really quite extraordinary.

And yet in the context of the US’s history of slavery and racism, the headline didn’t seem that outrageous.  Indeed, it is shameful that in America today a young man would shoot nine “nice people” in a Bible study purely because of the colour of their skin.  I can’t escape the fact that I am implicated in the shameful actions of my fellow countrymen, particularly as a de facto representative of the US in a foreign country (as I was reminded when my cab driver at midnight last night asked me to explain why the US is “such a violent country”).

Harvard ... Read More

The day after the night before

Wow, what a surprising night. Going into the election results last night I expected what most people were expecting: the Conservatives to win the most votes, up a handful over Labour, but unable to form a government; and Labour and Ed Miliband limping into power on the back of a shaky supply and confidence agreement with the SNP.

Which would have been a disaster, regardless of what you think of Labour, Ed Miliband and the SNP, because it would not have been a stable government: every single vote in the House of Commons would have been subject to such horse trading that in this increasingly hyper-partisan world the only measures which would be able of mustering a majority would be precisely those bills which were so short-term and pandering that they should never have seen the light of day. What a relief, then, that instead we have a Conservative majority government.

Alongside ... Read More

To Serve and Protect?

I’ve been reluctant to comment on the Ferguson story thus far, in part because I haven’t been sure what I could add to what’s already been said. And, admittedly, I find it liberating not to have to engage with US race relations on a daily basis (Britain has its own problems, but race plays less of a role when much of the discussion about immigration, for example, has to do with other Europeans).

That said, two things have struck me since the decision of the grand jury not to return an indictment.

The first is that many police forces in the US seem to have lost their way. People talk about the militarisation of the police in terms of increasingly violent methods used to apprehend suspects. But there is a far more disturbing way that policing can become militarised: when police develop an attitude that they are engaged in a war with certain members of ... Read More

The Day After

I’ve written before about why Scottish independence is such a deeply depressing prospect. But, three days out, to me this feels like one of the many elections I’ve observed where my side has narrowly lost (although we can still hope Salmond may have peaked too soon). There’s a reason why Westminster is (finally) panicking. Momentum is with the “Yes” campaign, and the normal rule that when in doubt people choose the status quo is less likely to help here: to the extent anyone fails to turn out on Thursday, it’s likely to be people who would vote “No” if forced but would rather not have to take an “unpatriotic” stand. “Yes” is exciting and positive; “No” is dull and contrary.

No doubt if Scotland does choose independence the recriminations will follow swiftly and with a vengeance. It is ridiculous that Cameron allowed the separatists to ... Read More

Scottish Independence: to What End?

Sometimes divorce is the right answer. Even Jesus, whose statement in Matthew 19 that “anyone who divorces his wife… and marries another woman commits adultery” is one of the most emphatic biblical condemnations of divorce, makes an exception for cases of “sexual immorality”: i.e., where the covenant of marriage has been irretrievably broken down due to a party’s unfaithfulness. But divorce still remains a “nuclear option”: it is not something to be done lightly, on the basis of individual advantage or flight of fancy. Although the grass may appear greener on the other side, such wishful thinking does not justify the trauma of separation.

While the analogy of divorce has been applied to the Scottish referendum on independence, it is an indictment of our age that neither divorce nor the possibility that Britain might be rent asunder are considered with due seriousness. As Martin Wolf comments in the Financial Times, ... Read More

A new gilded age?

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century (Harvard University Press, 2014)

A recurring theme in these blog posts has been the effect of technological change on employment, income distribution and return on capital in the coming decades and the implications of these changes for public policy. To summarise the story so far:

  • We are currently entering a period of rapid technological change. According to Moore’s law, which predicts that computing power doubles roughly every 18 months, we are approaching a period where the exponential effects of this doubling will suddenly become noticeable. We can already start to see science-fiction becoming reality in a number of ways, from ubiquitous video conferencing and tablet computers to self-parking and even self-driving cars and computer programs that can perform tasks that previously required skilled human labour (such as legal document discovery).
  • This technological change will reshape ... Read More