Archive for Independence

The State of Catalonia

Posted in Politics with tags , , on October 2, 2017 by telescoper

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was appalled by the scenes of violence yesterday as police tried to stop voting in the `referendum’ on Catalonia. Here’s some footage from the BBC which clearly shows excessive use of force inside a polling station:

This is far from the worst example: elsewhere plastic bullets were fired at unarmed protesters. In all, about 900 people have been reported injured, though this claim is contested and  thankfully none of them – as far as I know – seriously.

Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the independence movement – and I’ll tell you what I think in a moment – there’s no question that the Spanish government has handled this issue very badly and in so doing has conceded a propaganda victory.  There was no need to use force to prevent the voting, as the  referendum was unlawful. The national government was undoubtedly in a difficult position, but I think it would have been far better just to let the vote go ahead in full knowledge that it had no constitutional validity. The referendum result (claimed to be about 90% for independence, on a turnout of just over 40%) means nothing even if you actually believe the numbers (which are doubtful). ‘Democracy’ means nothing without the rule of law. 

Nevertheless, it just may be that history will judge Sunday 1st October to be the day that Catalonian independence became inevitable not because of the vote per  se but because of the reaction to it.

Many seem to be either casting this as a battle between democracy and fascism, raising the spectre of Franco, or, even more absurdly, blaming all this on the European Union, ignoring the blame attached to the antics of the separatists. For a counter to the simple-minded propaganda emanating from the extremes of left and right, you might read this piece

Of course I’m just an ignorant foreigner and I encourage those with different opinions to express them through the comments box below.

The EU will of course not intervene in what is essentially an internal problem for Spain, but is right to call for a dialogue to begin quickly before things get any worse, as the Commission has made clear:

Under the Spanish Constitution, yesterday’s vote in Catalonia was not legal.

For the European Commission, as President Juncker has reiterated repeatedly, this is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.

We also reiterate the legal position held by this Commission as well as by its predecessors. If a referendum were to be organised in line with the Spanish Constitution it would mean that the territory leaving would find itself outside of the European Union.

Beyond the purely legal aspects of this matter, the Commission believes that these are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation.

We call on all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue. Violence can never be an instrument in politics. We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in full respect of the Spanish Constitution and of the fundamental rights of citizens enshrined therein.

It was wrong to proceed with the referendum, but it was also wrong to use heavy-handed tactics to try to stop it going ahead. There is blame on both sides, and both sides need to get together to sort it out. I’m not optimistic that will happen immediately, but the only way to make peace is by talking to your opponents. Let’s hope that common sense prevails, if not immediately then perhaps eventually.

So what do I think about the case for Catalonian independence? Well, I’m not qualified to talk about the specific arguments, so I’ll keep to the generalities. Let me start with a bit of autobiography that might explain why I see things the way I do. I was born in Wallsend (on Tyneside) in the North East of England. My parents were both born just before World War II started, also in the area where I was born. Of my four grandparents, one was born in England, one in Northern Ireland, one in Scotland, and one in Wales. I always smile when I get to write my nationality on a form, because I put “United Kingdom”. Of course being born in England makes me English too, but I find that less defining than “UK” or “British” or even “Geordie”. To be honest, my ancestry means that  I generally find the whole concept of nationality fundamentally silly. I find nationalism silly too, except for those occasions – regrettably frequent nowadays – when nationalism takes on the guise of xenophobia. Then it is truly sinister. Nationalism is a tool by which unscrupulous individuals whip up hatred for political gain, regardless of the human consequences.

It may be apocryphal, but Albert Einstein is reported to have said “nationalism is an infantile disease”. The obvious way to cure it is to grow up and focus on fixing the real problems facing us instead of just waving flags, shouting slogans, and blaming others for our own failings. The reality is that we depend on each other too much for independence to have any meaning, let alone be desirable.

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Scotland Should Decide…

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2014 by telescoper

There being less than two weeks to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, a subject on which I have so far refrained from commenting, I thought I would write something on it from the point of view of an English academic. I was finally persuaded to take the plunge because of incoming traffic to this blog from  pro-independence pieces here and here and a piece in Nature News on similar matters.

I’ll say at the outset that this is an issue for the Scots themselves to decide. I’m a believer in democracy and think that the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed through a referendum should be respected. I’m not qualified to express an opinion on the wider financial and political implications so I’ll just comment on the implications for science research, which is directly relevant to at least some of the readers of this blog. What would happen to UK research if Scotland were to vote yes?

Before going on I’ll just point out that the latest opinion poll by Yougov puts the “Yes” (i.e. pro-independence) vote ahead of “No” at 51%-49%. As the sample size for this survey was only just over a thousand, it has a margin of error of ±3%. On that basis I’d call the race neck-and-neck to within the resolution of the survey statistics. It does annoy me that pollsters never bother to state their margin of error in press released. Nevertheless, the current picture is a lot closer than it looked just a month ago, which is interesting in itself, as it is not clear to me as an outsider why it has changed so dramatically and so quickly.

Anyway, according to a Guardian piece not long ago.

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to the statement by Willetts, who is no longer the Minister in charge) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for science in the rest of what is now the United Kingdom, but that depends on how much the Westminster government sets the science budget.

This all depends on how research funding would be redistributed if and when Scotland secedes from the Union, which could be done in various ways. The simplest would be for Scotland to withdraw from RCUK entirely. Because of the greater effectiveness of Scottish universities at winning funding compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland would have to spend more per capita to maintain its current level of resource, which is why many Scottish academics will be voting “no”. On the other hand, it has been suggested (by the “yes” campaign) that Scotland could buy back from its own revenue into RCUK at the current effective per capita rate  and thus maintain its present infrastructure and research expenditure at no extra cost. This, to me, sounds like wanting to have your cake and eat it,  and it’s by no means obvious that Westminster could or should agree to such a deal. All the soundings I have taken suggest that an independent Scotland should expect no such generosity, and will get actually zilch from the RCUK.

If full separation is the way head, science in Scotland would be heading into uncharted waters. Among the questions that would need to be answered are:

  •  what will happen to RCUK funded facilities and staff currently situated in Scotland, such as those at the UKATC?
  •  would Scottish researchers lose access to facilities located in England, Wales or Northern Ireland?
  •  would Scotland have to pay its own subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO?

These are complicated issues to resolve and there’s no question that a lengthy process of negotiation would be needed to resolved them. In the meantime, why should RCUK risk investing further funds in programmes and facilities that may end up outside the UK (or what remains of it)? This is a recipe for planning blight on an enormous scale.

And then there’s the issue of EU membership. Would Scotland be allowed to join the EU immediately on independence? If not, what would happen to EU funded research?

I’m not saying these things will necessarily work out badly in the long run for Scotland, but they are certainly questions I’d want to have answered before I were convinced to vote “yes”. I don’t have a vote so my opinion shouldn’t count for very much, but I wonder if there are any readers of this blog from across the Border who feel like expressing an opinion?

 

Would Scottish Independence be Good for English Science?

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on November 13, 2013 by telescoper

On Monday the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, visited Edinburgh where he took in, among other things, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre and was treated to an explanation of how adaptive optics work. There being less than a year to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, the visit was always likely to generate political discussion and this turned out to be the case.

According to a Guardian piece

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to Willetts) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for English science.

For what it’s worth, I am a complete agnostic about Scottish independence – I really think its for the Scots to decide – but I don’t think it would benefit the rest of the UK from the point of view of science funding. I think it’s much more likely that if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom then the part of the science budget it currently receives would be cancelled rather than redistributed, which would leave us no better off at all.