2007 - 2022

Good Government and the Sovereign Individual


GOOD GOVERNMENT: From The Province Of The Cat by George Gunn

What is a government exactly? Do modern, hi-tech societies actually need them? If they do then the least the citizens of these societies should expect is good government. Currently, as things pan out, can the subjects of the UK – for alas, as yet, we are not citizens – say that we have good government? Like the curate’s egg, as ascribed by the Rev. F. Arnold in his memoir “Our Bishops and Deans” (1875), “it is good in parts.” The recent and on-going Coronavirus pandemic has, I think, proved this. None of these “parts” is England.

No matter how much people like me, on the left of Scottish politics, are frustrated by the SNP government in Holyrood we must be glad that we are shielded by them from the growing careless and couldn’t-care-less excesses of the current Tory regime in London. Without borrowing powers any Scottish government is limited in what it can do – this is part of the frustration and the reality – and it is little wonder that Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues have been accused of being “managers”. Because that is exactly what they are: they manage a block grant from the Westminster Government. This is a set of affairs which cannot go on indefinitely, especially when the Tory regime is growing ever-more hostile to the devolution settlement and post-Brexit are shaking themselves free of any liberal legislation or social contract the EU tied them to. Gone with the single market is any commitment to regulation and transparency. Westminster is now determined to seize back powers devolved to Holyrood. They seek to create a de-regulated, free trade, financialised and centralised UKania where actual government dissolves into a digital mist.

The factors that increasingly make this Tory nightmare unlikely – hopefully – are their educated selfishness and inherent corruption. If you look at Westminster and at Holyrood you can see where “good government” resides. That is if you have eyes to see. Many don’t. Recently on BBC Radio Scotland there was a piece featuring Kezia Dugdale, currently director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service at the University of Glasgow, where she was discussing with the presenter the findings of a survey on how much “people” trust/distrust “politicians”. The findings were, unsurprisingly, negative – all politicians are untrustworthy, are out for themselves and are neck deep in sleaze. Kezia Dugdale and the BBC presenter kept referencing Westminster and the “Partygate” scandal as a case in point. Not once did they mention Scotland. Holyrood and the way things are done there didn’t fit the narrative.

During the first lockdown in 2020 the people of Scotland listened to their First Minister give a daily briefing informing them of exactly what was going on, as best she knew, and reassuring them that the Scottish NHS and the Scottish Government were doing everything in their power to protect them. From day one of the pandemic this was the consistent message. Contrast that with the indifference displayed by the UK Prime Minister and his Government. They ignored every warning and only acted when it was far too late. The Scottish Government were not perfect in everything they did but I doubt there were many in Scotland who did not believe Nicola Sturgeon and felt that she was sincere in what she was saying and doing and that the events, as they unfolded, were causing her as much deep pain as they were everyone else. Somehow, I can’t explain how, it helped. The SNP may move as a Government with the speed of a sloth and are generally overly-cautious and un-necessarily conservative on many issues such as land ownership and infrastructure nationalisation, but who in Scotland would choose to have Boris Johnson head their Government as opposed to Nicola Sturgeon? I know the answer to that – the Scottish Tories, but increasingly they are going the way of snow off a dyke.

The message of the political right is always one of essentialism, which when applied to government means, “less but better”. They assume that there is a fixed natural order to which we, the plebs, ought to conform our mental, calculating, and applied behaviour, and that any deviation from this order must be amended. The task of correcting such aberrations among picaninnies, watermelon-slice-smilers, tattie-munchers, artists, the weak and the poor, and all other wrongdoers such as the EU and the Scots, was – and still is – considered to be ‘the white man’s burden’ of the elite, those born to rule – i.e. the Conservative and Unionist Party.

I imagine that Boris Johnson has long ago convinced himself that once you give yourself the permission to stop trying to do it all or anything, to stop saying yes to everyone, to blether and bluster, only then can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter. Things like making as much money for yourself as you possibly can and of accruing as many resources to your benefit as you can, no matter that they belong to someone else such as Iraq, Venezuela, Nigeria or Scotland.

In Mark O’Connell’s summary (Guardian 15th February, 2018) of the chilling if pompous book, “The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State” (published in 1997) he charts its “Four steps to the new fascism”, which are –

1) The democratic nation-state basically operates like a criminal cartel, forcing honest citizens to surrender large portions of their wealth to pay for stuff like roads and hospitals and schools.

2) The rise of the internet, and the advent of cryptocurrencies, will make it impossible for governments to intervene in private transactions and to tax incomes, thereby liberating individuals from the political protection racket of democracy.

3) The state will consequently become obsolete as a political entity.

4) Out of this wreckage will emerge a new global dispensation, in which a “cognitive elite” will rise to power and influence, as a class of sovereign individuals “commanding vastly greater resources” who will no longer be subject to the power of nation-states and will redesign governments to suit their ends.

The authors are James Dale Davidson, a private investor who specialises in advising the rich on how to profit from economic catastrophe, and the late William Rees-Mogg, long-serving editor of the Times (and yes, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s dad!).

Mark O’Connell concludes,

“The Sovereign Individual is, in the most literal of senses, an apocalyptic text. Davidson and Rees-Mogg present an explicitly millenarian vision of the near future: the collapse of old orders, the rising of a new world. Liberal democracies will die out, and be replaced by loose confederations of corporate city-states… It’s impossible to overstate the darkness and extremity of the book’s predictions of capitalism’s future; to read it is to be continually reminded that the dystopia of your darkest insomniac imaginings is almost always someone else’s dream of a new utopian dawn.”

Think of that, if you can – if you dare! – the next time you see Jacob Rees-Mogg impersonating Lord Snooty on Newsnight. Beneath the morning suit and top hat lurks the ghosts of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. It is the reason that governments act swiftly to rescue the banks but drag their feet over climate change. Good government is not the aim of any government that has a place in it for Jacob Rees-Mogg. As the Brexit experiment unravels the Tories will lead us all into unchartered territory, for our generation at least, where we will enter a transition stage of governance somewhere between democracy and autocracy.

Autocracies, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, possess sufficient powers of repression to keep potential insurgents in check. The Metropolitan Police, on the other hand, are expert at kettling demonstrators into corners. Democracies, on the whole, allow dissidents means to effect change without resorting to violence but democracy can weaken, even fossilise, which is what we are seeing, I would suggest, in Westminster. Autocracies can also weaken, and the repression can fail, and then all hell breaks loose. This transition is what is termed “anocracy”, a concept first muted as far back as 1935 by the Austrian philosopher Martin Buber.

“Partygate” is evidence of how detached the ruling elite have become from the people, what in Aberdeenshire they call “the lave”. It is a sign that we are entering into an anocracy, where we can kiss any hope of good government goodbye. Instead what we see are a series of Tory shams. Sham support for the National Health Service. Sham anxiety about the environment and the climate crisis. Sham phrases such as “Levelling Up” and “The Benefits of Brexit” and so on through to the Nationality and Borders Bill, vaccination and immigration and into the darkness of the dystopian night.

For all its failings, shortcomings and cautions the Scottish Government currently compares as the functioning seat of good government in the still centre of a spiralling world. I believe that will make a difference when we legislate for our independence, whether that be through a referendum or by some other democratic means. It will give the Sottish people confidence.

“Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world.” the young artist Egon Schiele exhorted in a letter to a friend after being arrested for his radical art, destined for an untimely death in 1918 from the Spanish flu. His young pregnant wife succumbed to it three days previously to his own demise. In this time of pandemic and economic fragility, when the bands that hold the United Kingdom together are daily breaking, we must also “see beauty in everything in the world”, most especially within ourselves and in our ability to create a country in which our children can live and thrive and be happy. As far as I can see that is good government. As we all know it is not easy, but our democratic requirements are, as David Hume said of “passions”, “as unreasonable as they are necessary”.

©George Gunn 2022

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Comments (22)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    A level-headed thoughtful piece, Mr Gunn.

    You make a point which is true but deserved being made explicit: The Scottish Government manages the block grant. This is a matter of fact, and much as many wish it other, it indicates the parameters within which the SG has to operate.

    There are aspects where the SG has had genuine choices – and land reform is one – and the record is mixed, but, on the whole it has been open and honest and these are prerequisites for trust and, as you indicate, most people in Scotland trust the SG.

    Looking at the appalling state of affairs at Westminster and the blancmange that is Starmer’s Labour, most people in Scotland are relieved that we do not live there. It is a question of self-respect, of confidence, of courage to decide that we ought to decide – as opposed to simply manage – how the run the place where we live.

    1. @ Alasdair Macdonald says:

      ‘…most people in Scotland are relieved that we do not live there [England}.’

      Really?

      1. bill says:

        Having lived in England for 12 years, 1966-1978, married there, had my kids there – I am very glad that neither I nor any of my family live there now. A country governed by a corrupt and corrupting, incompetent and uncaring bunch, led by a person that is a disgrace to the human race. The SNP may have its faults, but the Tories?

        Bill

        1. @ Alasdair Macdonald says:

          Well, that’s one…

          1. bill says:

            No, with children, wife and grandchildren that is 15

            Bill

          2. Derek says:

            Alasdair, what would you describe as being the advantages of living in England over Scotland? I’m not sure what you’re driving at. Is it more stable politically? Is it better served such as by the NHS or other public utilities? Or, to express it the other way, what is it about living in Scotland that is disadvantageous over England?

          3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            Derek, I think Bill has made a strong point or, as he says, 15 of them!

            It is clear that the Scottish Government is not corrupt and that has been the case since it was established in 1998. I think people think that the six First Ministers have been truthful in their statements over the years. Most of the things which impact daily on the lives of people in Scotland – health, education, social work, transport – have been managed pretty effectively, if only in a limited way in some regards, for the reasons Mr Gunn mentioned in his article.

            In health and education the staffing ratios, per capita are significantly higher than elsewhere in the UK and, recently a WHO representative gave glowing praise at a House of Commons committee, leading the Chair, Mr Jeremy Hunt MP to say that as Health Minister he had tried to persuade the senior manager of NHS Scotland to transfer to NHS England. Many health indicators for Scotland are superior to those elsewhere in the UK.

            And, yes, I think Scotland is more stable politically and I think that the proportional voting system has contributed to that. Although the last three elections have given the SNP an overall majority once and a very narrow minority twice, in a system designed not to have such an outcome, indicates that a large proportion of the population are reasonably content.

            Since you ask what is ‘disadvantageous’, I think the main factor is the limits on the extent of SG powers, especially in finance, with the limited borrowing and taxation powers. Some powers are only partly devolved leading to ceilings been placed on actions the SG would like to take.

            62% of those voting in 2016 voted for Scotland to remain part of the EU and every constituency – central, north. south, urban, rural, island – voted to remain.

          4. @ bill says:

            That’s still not ‘most people in Scotland’.

    2. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

      ‘self-respect, .. confidence, .. courage to decide that we ought to decide… how the run the place where we live’.
      The Scottish Government might usefully be working to develop not just the outward appearance (as, arguably, they do now), but also the substance of those qualities, the absence of which so frustrates so many of us, as George points out. A very even-handed piece, with the passion coming right at the end like the ‘punctum’ (Barthes) that it truly is.

  2. norm says:

    Can the spelling of Kazia be corrected to Kezia?

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Is that the norm, Norm? ( I will get my coat!)

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @norm, but we’re happy with “Sottish people” (©George Gunn 2022)?

  3. David B says:

    I’m really struggling to understand the current focus on Scottish borrowing powers (or lack thereof). Using Ireland as a comparison, they were running a pre-COVID budget surplus of 0.3%. We had a deficit of 7%. During COVID their deficit rose to 5% of GDP – ours went to 22%. If Scotland became independent tomorrow, it is hugely unlikely that we could borrow enough money to make up for our budget shortfall.

    I can see the logic behind wanting more powers e.g. full powers over employment, taxation and energy. I hope and believe we would use those powers more wisely than Westminster, and in doing so would create a more equal society powered by publicly owned green energy – which in turn would reduce or eliminate our deficit. But right now, at this point in time, borrowing would not make up for the loss of UK net payments, let alone provide additional finance. I worry that we would end up balancing the books by upping oil & gas production, and selling off more renewables rights to private capital.

    Is there something I’m not seeing here?

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Scotland is currently part of the UK and is entitled to a share of UK assets. If the rest of the UK decides to retain the pound and ‘refuses’, as Osborne did, to ‘allow’ Scotland to use the pound (despite the fact that it is Scotland’s pound, too) then all the liabilities would remain with the rest of the UK and Scotland would be debt free.

      In addition, you are basing your figures on the GERS methodology which ascribes notional estimates of expenditure to NI, Scotland and Wales and was specifically designed to present these three countries as net recipients or ‘scroungers.

      1. David B says:

        Hi Alasdair, thanks for the reply. I’m talking about the budget deficit, not national debt. Our budget deficit is the annual difference between what we raise in taxes and what we spend on public services. It would remain largely the same regardless of whether we started from a debt-free position – unless we raise taxes or cut public spending.

        Do you have any links about the GERS methodology? I’ve heard this before but never had an explanation. The figures I’ve used are from ScotGov, and are consistent with the SNP’s Growth Commission deficit assumptions so far as I understand them. I’ve used the lower of 2 deficit figures to account for North Sea oil. What are the alternative methodologies and how do they differ from GERS?

        1. David B says:

          Sorry, correction – starting from a debt free position would mean we don’t pay to service a national debt (currently at a cost of around 2% of GDP per annum for the whole of the UK). Though it could also reduce our ability to borrow

        2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          David, there are a number of people who are more knowledgeable about the details of GERS and budget deficits than I. For example, Richard Murphy. However, if you search the internet there are others you can find, such as the Fraser of Allander Institute.

          Proponents of ‘modern monetary theory’ (MMT) have a different paradigm to that which you present relating to a balance between taxation and public spending. However, many years before MMT, John Maynard Keynes pointed out that national budgets are not equivalent to household budgets where we have to balance personal incomes with personal expenditure. Governments can create money, they can ‘borrow’ from central banks (which they control), they determine interest rates and the money supply and, by controlled inflation can ‘reduce’ ‘debt’. If they are both the lender and borrower can there be debt?

          However, I am not an economist, nor did I study economics at university. Any knowledge I have is from reading articles and books written for the ‘lay’ reader.

          If Scotland were independent, then it would create its own central bank and currency and it would also determine its own policies. Since WW2 more than 100 countries have become independent, a large portion of them from the UK, they have all to varying degrees created viable states. Why should Scotland be any different?

          You referred to Ireland which is the nearest example to here. Ireland became a ‘free state’ in 1922 and, in 1949 became an independent republic. it went through difficult times during that period, but so did much of the world. Nowadays, its overall standard of living is higher than the UK’s. However, as it did with many countries seeking independence, perfidious Albion behaved egregiously leading to the deaths of many.

          Separations between countries can be negotiated without affecting excessively the economies and societies in either. The separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905 and the separation of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and The Czech Republic in the 1990s are examples. Looked at objectively, the separation of Scotland from England need not affect adversely either country. English businesses have markets in Scotland and vice versa.

          1. David B says:

            Thanks Alasdair – I will look up those sources on GERS.

            I don’t think MMT conflicts with my analysis. MMT as I understand it concerns central banks that can create money in their own currency. An independent Scotland will not initially be able to do this, and may take many years to be in that position. I’ve taken into account the fact that the UK owes much of its debt to itself – e.g. the 2% cost of servicing debt excludes interest payments made to the BofE. MMT also appears to be disputed even amongst leftist economists.

            I’m not disputing that an independent Scotland may be better off in the long run. My concern is what suffering this may cause in the first decade or so following independence – and whether there may be more effective ways of achieving equality and sustainability.

          2. David B says:

            Also I am not saying that national debt needs to be balanced in the same way as household debt. Nations like Denmark and NZ are able to run persistent budget deficits of around 1 to (exceptionally) 5%. Scotland on the other hand have been running deficits of 7 to (exceptionally) 22%. We may be able to run *a* persistent deficit, but we cannot run *any* persistent deficit.

            I will have a look at those sources. Thank you again.

          3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            The key factor in this is that the countries which you instance are independent countries which have powers over their own finances. Scotland (and Wales, Northern Ireland, and, indeed England*) does not have that. Although Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland, but NOT England) have block grants from Westminster devolved to the national governments to allocate as they see fit within the constraints of devolution. In addition, Westminster also spends on UK wide matters – e.g armed forces, foreign embassies – and it also spends for England. In the latter case, when money is spent on England (or withdrawn from) then Scotland, Wales and NI, under the Barnet Formula receive additional funds (or have them withdrawn).

            As a result of these matters, the budget estimates for Scotland, Wales and NI, substantially comprise estimates, and the basis of these estimates is widely contested.

            So, whether Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland actually have surpluses or deficits is largely conjectural.

            *England does not actually have a Parliament for England. It is the only nation (and not just in the UK) which does not have one. Matters related to England are decided by the Westminster Parliament, and despite, David Cameron’s “English votes for English Laws” MPs representing Scottish, NI and Welsh constituencies are entitled to vote on English matters. It is claimed that MPs for English constituencies have no equivalent right to vote on Scottish, Welsh or Irish matters. This is not true, because Westminster is ‘sovereign’ and, despite the devolution acts, Westminster can decide to override Acts of the devolved Parliaments and, indeed, spend monies over which the devolved governments have powers. This has become even more problematic following Brexit and the Internal Market legislation.

            People who live in England need to raise the question of whether England should have a government distinct from Westminster.

        3. Tom Ultuous says:

          David, According to the official figures public spending per person is highest in London. Then it’s the 3 devolved nations who are supposedly being subsidised by the English outside of London. Why would that be when the 3 devolved nations offer little support for the Tories (the waning DUP excepted)? They cut foreign aid to the most vulnerable people in the world by 4 billion but we in the devolved nations are supposed to believe the Tories are throwing much more than that at us out of love. Remember, this is the crew that killed people so they could hand out PPE contracts to their chums for Bitcoin pushbacks.

          The figures are bring fiddled (NAP) but it’s starting to backfire on them as more and more English people are coming away with “why are we subsidising them, let them go, we’ll be glad to see the back of them”. Had the Tories held an English independence referendum rather than a Brexit one we’d have been shot of them by now.

          For information on Scotland’s debt and GERs figures take a look at http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/ and use the site’s search facility.

          1. Wul says:

            David,

            Have a look at the Business for Scotland web site which explores the false impression created yearly by the GERS figures.

            https://www.businessforscotland.com/revealed-the-accounting-trick-that-hides-scotlands-wealth/

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