A New Vision for Union

I’m treating this as a living document, which will be subject to additions and amendments, but I wanted to make a start at least, following several earlier aborted attempts.

Following the vote on Scottish independence, it seems appropriate to start sketching out my own thoughts on the future of the Union here. The outcome of the Scottish referendum will have repercussions on the UK as a whole.

All three leaders of the main parties currently in parliament at Westminster have conceded that further powers must be devolved to Scotland and have agreed to speed this process through.

But this development won’t only affect Scotland. It’s unimaginable that English voters would accept a further devolution of powers to Scotland without similar powers being devolved to England too. Moreover, the idea of Scottish MPs voting over issues which affect English voters, something which is already the case but would be more pronounced under further devolution, is unacceptable.

It’s clear that there is widespread dissatisfaction over how national politics operates across the UK. The UK has some big problems in terms of general distrust towards politicians on the part of voters on the one hand, and of political and financial centralisation around London on the other. And it’s not just Scottish people who feel angry, upset, and disenfranchised about this, but the other home nations and the regions of England too.

The UK is an unusual country in modern terms due to the centralised nature of how the country is governed. The most successful nations around the world are organised around federal structures, with regional/state parliaments making decisions concerning their constituents. In the 19th century, there were good reasons to centralise administration in the UK in one place, but this is no longer the case.

There is long-standing resentment of London and the South East from the English provinces, with a perception of government decisions often being made in London’s favour and centrally collected taxes spent there. The sheer number of non-Londoners who move to the area for work purposes is a clear demonstration of its economic pull. London of course has its own assembly already and has been able to make decisions over its own future, with the decision maker (currently Boris Johnson) directly accountable to voters.

So, how do we address this imbalance?

Well, the UK should have been set up as a proper confederation many years ago, with all but the most essential powers around defence, environment, and foreign policy devolved to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the regions within England. England already has ready-made regions for this purpose, which are used, amongst other things, as constituencies in elections to the EU parliament.

These are as follows:

1. North East
2. North West
3. Yorkshire and the Humber
4. East Midlands
5. West Midlands
6. East of England
7. London
8. South East
9. South West

Together with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, this would give us 12 regions.

I can imagine that each region/state would levy its own taxes for its purposes. This does not mean that the burden of the taxpayer should be increased, but rather that some of the taxes should be moved from central government to regions, each of which would have jurisdiction over certain matters. In this way, taxes levied within a region would be sure to remain within that region and regions could respond to good or bad times far more dynamically than at present by offering businesses incentives and favourable tax breaks to invest in the region.

With this devolution of powers to regions, central government’s remit might, for example, cover defence, trade, environment, foreign policy, and law. Parliament would continue to operate as a bicameral system, but as the upper house, the House of Lords would be replaced by a House of Regions/Senate, with each English region, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland represented by a number of members in proportion to their population. The number of federal, i.e. Westminster, MPs would be cut, as more day-to-day issue were transferred to regional level.

All matters which didn’t sit naturally in a nationwide context could be devolved to regional parliaments. Note that this need not preclude regional parliaments from cooperating over issues, so we might see three, four or all regions agreeing on a common education policy or policing for reasons of finance or practicality.

An accusation often levelled at decentralised nations is that separate structures can lead to additional costs and divergence in practices. Whilst there is some merit in this criticism, the following advantages appear to offset/eliminate any such concerns:

Regions (not necessarily geographically adjacent) could pool resources.
Regions can learn from better, alternate practices in other regions.
It is clear where responsibility lies over matters (local, regional, or national) and when problems are encountered, a dissatified electorate can hold the relevant powers accountable.

Should voters in a region prefer not to have their own regional parliament, provision could be made for an English parliament to legislate for regions who rejected local control. I raise this possibility, as voters in the North East for some reason (I suspect general anti-political sentiment and concerns over creating ‘another political tier’) voted against regional powers a few years ago. However, what I propose would be a case of moving political control from London to regions instead, so wouldn’t in itself increase the number of politicians, but move them out closer to their constituents.

Further Reform

I am no fan of political parties. I have, at various times, voted Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP, and Green, based on the kind of election, contemporary issues, and the manifestos of the parties.

I find the idea of nailing my political colours to a mast a futile exercise and nothing depresses me more than to hear someone proudly proclaim that they’re voting for such-and-such a party, because their father, grandfather, and great grandfather voted for them.

There has never been a party with whom my opinions converge fully, and I expect that this is the case for the vast majority of people.

If we were starting with a blank slate, we would not design our system to work in the way it does. Confrontational politics is all well and good in terms of holding governments to account to an extent, but media and public scrutiny is perfectly capable of fulfilling this role nowadays without the need for an official opposition, and, if semi-direct democracy were the chosen means to operate (more of that later), the ultimate power would be in the hands of the people. Bi-partisan politics merely turns the important task of governing a country into a competition between two teams whose priorities are to gain and consolidate power – and unfortunately, it is clear that sometimes these concerns come above what might be best for the country.

A far better model would be one of perpetual coalition, whereby a government were formed of members proportional to the numbers of MPs elected. This is how Switzerland operates and has the advantage that all voters are permanently represented not just in parliament, but in government too.

The ultimate solution to me would be one where there were no political parties at all, but all constituencies elected independent MPs and the parliament merely selected members of government from within its ranks.

In this semi-direct democracy of independent MPs, the MP would consult with his/her constituents and to vote according to their instructions. An MP which disregarded their contituents’ views would be in great danger of being recalled and losing their seat.

I have set out some rather radical ideas here, but they are by no means my own original ideas and most are already in operation in other nations. In any event, these ideas deserve more or at least as much attention as the rants of anti-political celebrities such as Russell Brand and similar messages of despair.

I’m optimistic about the future governance of our country. Ever more people are coming around to the idea of devolution, not just to Scotland, but to the English regions too.

In putting the Union through all this uncertainty, Scotland may well have done us all a massive favour. It will be down to the parties in Westminster to take the opportunity to collectively reform and devolve power properly and fairly throughout the Union. If it doesn’t do so, we will find ourselves looking at another referendum on independence in another generation.

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Slam Dunked!

I had a new experience today. Our home phone line and broadband connection was ‘telephone slammed’.

‘Telephone slamming’, as I am now aware, is when a phone service and/or broadband provider takes over your service without your knowledge and with seemingly little in the way of security measures to make this happen (more of that later).

On 26th August, I received an email from Plusnet (my provider until today and hopefully my provider again when all this is resolved) which stated

Another service provider has notified us that you’re moving your phone line and call plan to them.

This was news to me. We’ve been happy with Plusnet for a long time, never had any issues with them, and our broadband speeds have been just fine. I hadn’t spoken with any other providers, filled in any forms anywhere, or expressed any interest in moving provider with anyone else.

I contacted Plusnet immediately and told them this, asked who had made the request (apparently a company called Primus/New Call Telecom) and instructed them to cancel the request, which they duly did and sent me a confirmation email the same day. I thought nothing more of it, suspecting it had been a genuine mistake.

Two days later, I received another copy of the first email and here’s where I potentially ‘cocked up’. Assuming that this was a copy of the initial email that had been sent out again, or from a different department within Plusnet, I ignored it, believing that they had already flagged the move as cancelled. That was 14 days ago.

Around midday today, our landline connection dropped. Thinking this might be a rare ADSL modem or router crash, I rebooted both units. No joy. Next, I checked Plusnet’s service announcements Web page (tethering to my phone) to check for any outages. Nothing there that affected us, so I resorted to phoning them, at which point they informed me that our service had been moved to a new provider.

They went over the chain of communication between us and informed me that since I hadn’t responded to the second email, the process had been followed through. They understood why I hadn’t responded to the second email though, having cancelled the move a mere two days beforehand.

The upshot was that the earliest they could get our phone line and broadband back would be two weeks, regardless of what we did. Moreover, there would be a reconnection fee of £65 (under the circumstances, they agreed to waive this) and there was no guarantee we’d get our landline number back, as the transfer hadn’t included a number move, so our number had been put back ‘in the pool’ of numbers available to new customers. Here again, they managed to claim the number back (we hope)!

There’s no point in getting mad at people in call centres. They’re just doing their job at the ‘coal face’ and processes are often fully automated. Being polite, but firm is the best approach, and Plusnet were both sympathetic and helpful and even offered me a reduced monthly contract for the same service level – I suspect keeping my cool may have helped in this respect too.

Next, I phoned the company who have supposedly taken over our service – Primus. They were unable to find any record of having taken over our service based on any details I gave them – name, address, old phone number, or new phone number (Plusnet told me that dialling 17070 gives you your landline number).

Somewhat flummoxed, I phoned Plusnet back and told them the news. They in turn insisted that it was Primus who had initiated the request and advised that I should call them back and, failing any progress, contact Ofcom.

I called Primus again and this time I got somewhere, as the person I spoke to made some puzzled noises and asked to put me on hold. After a time, he came back to the call to tell me that he couldn’t be of any further assistance. I asked him to confirm whether or not they had taken over our landline number, but he declined to answer under the auspices of the Data Protection Act.

At this point, I had a minor sense-of-humour failure. On two successive dealings with authorities now (last time was with the Met Police over a speeding ticket falsely issued to me), the person on the end of the phone has wrongly invoked the Data Protection Act. It’s clearly a classic fob-off, used to stop any kind of comeback. In the case of the Met, having got through to a more senior member of staff, they admitted that the info I asked for was not covered by the DPA. Lied to by the police!

I sure as hell wasn’t going to accept that a company who had seemingly taken over my phone couldn’t confirm or deny that they had or hadn’t done so, based on the DPA! I asked the staff member how such a request was covered by the DPA, given that I knew my phone number and was not asking them to disclose any information on a third party. No answer. It seems that invoking the DPA doesn’t necessitate any understanding of its purpose. At that stage, I ended the conversation and phoned Ofcom.

It seems that this experience is reasonably common. Ofcom will investigate and get to the bottom of who now manages my phone line, but that will take four working days. Having not signed anything, I’m tempted to phone a few porn chat lines in Australia to clock up a nice bill. In any event, I can’t establish which provider owns the line and so I can’t get even a temporary ADSL connection established.

What have I learnt from this? Not a great deal. I’m kicking myself slightly for not responding to the second email. I should have grasped that it was an automatically triggered email following a second transfer request two days after the first one had been cancelled. On the other hand, we could have played that game indefinitely and frankly, I’ve got better things to do than sit in call queues every other day cancelling a process I didn’t initiate and they should have the wherewithal to realise that I had cancelled the process just two days before – a process which I hadn’t initiated!

I gave Plusnet some feedback. Namely, it would be sensible to send out a final email a day or two before handover to a new provider happens. If this had happened, I would have been alerted in time to stop the process.

It would also be sensible to require postal or at least verbal confirmation of such a changeover, confirming address and phone number details. That will be something for Ofcom to consider.

As things stand, it looks like what’s most likely is that another person with a similar phone number has requested a transfer, that the number has been entered wrongly, and that one piece of information has been enough to trigger the process. The conspiracy theory version might be that it’s a malicious attempt by a new provider to gain a new customer, who may not be interested in going through all the hassle of reverting to their initial provider.

Either way, the current ease with which this can happen, with someone receiving a single email notification, isn’t really good enough.

Roll on two weeks!

Update – 23rd September

Well, Plusnet ballsed it up. We have a phone line and our old number back fortunately, but despite their reassurances that full service would be restored today, we have no broadband and their latest information is that we won’t be getting it back until 00:00 on 4th October, as BT have some fiddling about to do at the exchange. It transpires they don’t actually, as there is no physical work to be done – just a switch to be flicked. Plusnet started quoting Ofcom rules at me over this, but I’m afraid as far as I’m concerned, somebody ballsed up due to a fully-automated system. Rather than the standard ‘computer says no’ response, I would expect a company which valued its customers to pay to have an engineer come out and sort it.

Suffice it to say I am deeply unimpressed. If they had informed me that there were a chance that broadband wouldn’t be restored (I made it clear that was more important than the phone line), I would have walked. As it is, they have me over a barrel. Since the phone line has been restored, I am bound by a new contract which will require a hefty cancellation fee now.

That in itself adds insult to injury – that I am tied into a two-year contract through no fault of my own and I seemingly have no means of getting out of this without jumping through a whole lot of legal crap I can do without.

Ofcom are fairly unhelpful unfortunately, other than that they confirmed that it was indeed Primus who had slammed my line, despite their denials. Looks like my only recourse is an official complaint through Primus’ complaint procedure.

So, it looks like I’m left with a couple of options:

1. Kick up merry hell and spend a lot of time seeking some redress for the inconvenience and time I’ve spent on this.

2. Put up with things as they are, bound to a contract for a further two years, and just make an effort to tell others this story in the hope that others can learn from it.

My heart says I should do the former, but my brain says I should do the latter.

Either way, I can only recommend to Plusnet that they sort out their communications quite severely. They need some kind of user feedback acknowledgement (a link in an email would suffice) to cancel a transfer to another provider, so the user doesn’t have to phone them up every two days to prevent another supplier from slamming their line. Their communication preferences need to be better. I can opt in/out for marketing info, but I would expect to be emailed whenever an account status changed or there was new information.

And to all existing or prospective Plusnet customers. If you get an email with subject A reminder about moving your Home Phone from Plusnet, DO NOT IGNORE IT. If you phone up, tell them you didn’t initiate a move to another company and tell them to cancel the move and you get the same email a couple of days later, DO NOT IGNORE IT.  If you phone up, tell them you didn’t initiate a move to another company and tell them to cancel the move and you get the same email a couple of days later, DO NOT IGNORE IT. If you phone up, tell them you didn’t initiate a move to another company and tell them to cancel the move and you get the same email a couple of days later, DO NOT IGNORE IT.

Repeat ad bloody nauseum, because no human intervention will be forthcoming to prevent you from a month of being without broadband… And you’ll be paying for the privilege in time, money, and stress.

You get the picture.

Thanks, Plusnet. Good, honest broadband from Yorkshire indeed. It sickens me that they profane the county of my birth with such a claim.

Update – 3rd October

Having been without landline broadband since 11th September, it was finally restored this morning at 10:20. I hope that’s the end to this sorry episode. Fortunately, The One Plan from Three, which has unlimited data allowance, has allowed me to continue working surprisingly well in the intervening time by tethering my work laptop to my phone. So, a big thumbs up to Three!

 

Tyranny of the Majority or just True Democracy?

This blog entry is based on a comment I wrote in response to an article at http://nationalinterest.org/feature/switzerland-the-ultimate-democracy-11219, which, whilst highlighting the pros of Direct Democracy, makes reference to the ‘tyranny of the majority’. This is my response…

This concept of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ always fascinates me, or more accurately annoys the hell out of me. Isn’t that actually true democracy? Exactly how can a small group of people (i.e. politicians) who ride roughshod over the will of the people, promoting their own political agendas, careers, and vested interests over the best interests of the nation as a whole be considered a better alternative? On whose say-so are the laws passed in a representative democracy in any way fair, or, to turn around the accusation, ‘non-tyrannical’ if they go against the will of the majority of the public? It’s a nonsense.

Switzerland’s population comprises 28.9% foreigners – outside micro states and the duchy of Luxembourg, the highest proportion of foreigner inhabitants in Europe. To say that these immigrants are in any way persecuted suggests that they are masochists. They are hardly oppressed enough to vote with their feet, so maybe the the touted ‘oppression’ isn’t quite ‘oppressive’ enough to make them want to leave.

The article raises the issue that there is a vague suspicion that the Swiss may have voted to ban ritual slaughter originally as a means to oppress the Jewish population. Is there any evidence for this outside the vague suspicions of the multiculturalist’s agenda? Perhaps it should be taken at face value that most westerners and animal rights groups find the slaughter practices of certain other cultures against our norms of decency with regard to the humane treatment of animals. In any case, it doesn’t seem to have had Jews fleeing the country in droves, unlike other more ‘culturally enlightened’ countries in recent years, where the active promotion of multiculturalism has led to an emboldening of less enlightened attitudes and practices. Witness the history of honour killings, child rape, veiling, Muslim patrols, and, ironically, the flight of Jews in droves from several European cities where Islam has taken a foothold. Most recently, witness the shocking events in Rotherham.

What’s often overlooked in the dash to promote multiculturalism is that a country’s inhabitants have a right to their own culture and they have a perfectly legitimate right to maintain that culture – part of the very aspect of the nation which attracts visitors and immigrants. Since culture encompasses morals and values, an indigenous population should have every right to seek to protect its own culture and to prevent the promotion of other cultural practices or symbols which conflict with the indigenous culture.

And yes, this even extends to preventing the building of minarets. In what sense does the desire of a minority to build a minaret trump the majority’s desire not to have a minaret any more than an individual’s request for planning permission to build an eyesore would trump the majority’s desire for the eyesore not to leave the drawing board? Is the minaret required for worship? Even if it were, why should the majority tolerate something they don’t want – even if their desire to not have it were regarded as baseless by others?

The ‘tyranny of the majority’ is not really tyranny, but represents another misuse of language, in the same way that ‘race’ has been misused to encompass religion, or Israel, the only viable liberal democracy in the Middle East, is incorrectly described as ‘apartheid’.

Muslims are still free to worship and even to build mosques in Switzerland. There is no suppression of actual human rights – merely behaviours which don’t fit in with the host culture, and the majority of a host nation has more of a right, as the established population, to a vague dislike of foreign cultural practices than a minority does to promote them.

The Swiss are clearly keen to avoid the ‘tyranny of the minority’ of elsewhere – where cultural vandalism happens on the say-so of minorities, or more often than that, not the minorities themselves, but a minority within the minority, or of cultural Marxists, keen to push their cultural relativist agenda, encouraging multiculturalism, segregation, misunderstanding, and ultimately behaviours which, whilst tolerated or normal in other cultures (child marriage, child abuse, wife-beating, homophobia), are illegal in Switzerland.

Can those who oppose ‘tyranny of the majority’ say in all honesty that they are happy with political decisions made on their behalf? I have yet to meet someone who is. A quick check on social media suggests otherwise. Even if they are happy when they ‘get their way’ and legislation is passed which they support, but the majority oppose, what kind of anti-democratic mind endorses this state of affairs?

True democracy means we occasionally don’t get our own way. A mature democrat will accept the will of the majority, even when it goes against their own views.

Ultimately, the majority doesn’t have to justify its actions to anyone. So long as it doesn’t transgress real human rights (as many of the immigrants’ own cultures do), it has an absolute right to do what it wants. And despite the protestations of some, the number of foreigners living in Switzerland tells us all we need to know about the reality of the situation.

Back to the wider point of Direct Democracy, we, in the representative democracy world, have widespread disillusion with politics, as has been clearly demonstrated by turnout in elections over several years now. The electorate knows that politicians, once elected, can ride roughshod over electoral promises or public opinion. Worse still, they can do that with absolute impunity and without the threat of recall. We have widespread criticism of politicians and the decisions they make across mainstream and social media, and the rise of the anti-politician, such as Russell Brand. This latter development is particularly dangerous. I wonder if we can cite any historic examples of charismatic ‘leaders’ preaching messages against democracy and advocating revolution. Hmm….

We see demonstrations almost every weekend around the country over a wide variety of issues, and yet it doesn’t take much to realise how ineffective these are in comparison to the power of the citizen initiative or referendum. And here’s the odd thing… Most demonstrations I can recall in the UK involve issues which one would normally associate with demands of the political left. The only exceptions which come to mind are the Countryside Alliance’s demonstrations and the marches of the EDL (although these were countered by the AFL, which, oddly enough, seems happy enough to march alongside proponents of conservative values, so long as they aren’t western ones).

Ironically, however, those who demonstrate in the streets to get their way, who complain about any proposed privatisation of the NHS or about UK intervention in foreign wars are not the ones who are advocating the kind of system which could see them win the argument – i.e. Direct Democracy. Rather, it is the younger political wing of the Conservative Party and UKIP (more commonly seen as merely an anti-EU party, or by lazy thinkers as BNP lite) which argues for initiative, referendum, and recall – the core components of Direct Democracy: people like Zac Goldsmith, Daniel Hannan, and Douglas Carswell: the latter having recently defected to UKIP following frustration at the lack of political reform in the Conservative Party.

There is a clear answer to the disenfranchisement of the electorate and that is Direct Democracy. Switzerland shows that, as conservative as it is perceived to be, liberal and progressive measures do make it to a public vote and occasionally become law, whereas such policies don’t usually get anywhere near becoming laws in representative democracies, due to the lobbying power of special interest groups and big business.

Wilful electoral withdrawal by the majority of the electorate and the governance of special interest groups and influence of big business is of far greater concern than any imagined ‘tyranny of the majority’.