Yellow peril, turnout wilt and Tory bulge – three more things we didn’t catch

Three other things are worth noting from the weekend’s number crunching. Firstly, the Tories did much better out of the Lib-Dem collapse than Labour. Partly this is because there were far fewer seats for Labour to gain from the Lib-Dems, but also because Labour voters were very unwilling to vote tactically to save a Lib-Dem MP (as some might have done up until 2010). So, ironically, the disdain felt by many Labour voters for the Lib-Dems actually hurt their own party.

Secondly, the dog that didn’t bark – turnout. Everyone was expecting a high turnout but it hardly budged from the 65% in 2010. When we see the detailed analysis, my guess is we’ll see that the much-vaunted surge in young people voting didn’t materialise. I’m not sure where the expectation of a high turnout came from. Perhaps we were taken in by high levels of election activity of social media. We should have realised that people talking about the election on Facebook and Twitter were probably always going to vote.

This election also saw a differential turnout effect – with turnout rising in areas where the Tories were defending a slim majority. We might have hoped this would help Labour; but actually it was Tories turning out en masse to save their Tory MP. Quite simply, the Tory campaign engaged their people much more than Labour engaged theirs. (This should be another warning against an unthinking Labour lurch to the right.)

Finally, there’s our old friend the Tory “bonus”. We need to face the fact that there is a long-term tendency for the polls to underestimate Tory support by about three percentage points. It doesn’t happen in all elections (not in 2010 for example) but it does happen in most – locals and Europeans included. I’ve no idea if this is “shy Tories”, “late swing” or whether it’s just, as former Home Secretary Douglas Hurd suggested on Friday afternoon, a sort of natural English tendency to plump for the “safer”, establishment option, which for middle-ground voters, seems to be the Tories. Even Hurd said this showed the English to be “odd”. Well maybe we are odd but we’re not going to change overnight, so during this parliament I will be adding three points to the Tory poll score and knocking a couple off Labour before drawing any conclusions.

George Lakoff

Why are we still letting the right win?

Thinking about this election campaign and what might happen afterwards, I dug out this interview given by the American professor George Lakoff to the Guardian’s Zoe Williams back in February. It’s well worth a read if you want to know why the left has been generally losing the argument for the last 35 years.

Lakoff’s field is cognitive linguistics and his thing is “framing”. From what I can see this basically means the set of values we use to make sense of the world around us. They determine how we respond to events in our personal lives and well as things happening in the news. Frames “structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason… For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic,” says Lakoff. When we come across an idea that fits our frames, it strikes us as “common sense”. And in the long term political arguments are won by those who get most people to see their views as common sense.

Although he calls himself a “liberal” (US version), Lakoff is hyper-critical of both the American and European left. He reckons that by continually compromising with conservatives in spurious pursuit of the “middle ground” (which he says in value terms doesn’t exist — left and right are just two different ways of looking at the world), we are allowing politics to be shifted ever further to the right. Lefties are literally conniving with right-wingers in widening inequality, eroding human rights, trashing the planet and inflaming racial and national hatreds.

The left relies too heavily on reasoned argument and empirical evidence, when most people make political judgements on gut instincts about the world. Lakoff calls this emphasis on evidence, research and statistics (all produced within the framework set by global free market capitalism, of course) “Oxford philosophy”. Too often, the left ignores the emotional impact of political argument. Conservatives know this; they ruthlessly exploit emotion and present arguments that chime with people’s feelings. “Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them,” says Lakoff. “Oxford philosophy is killing the world.”

We’ve seen this during the British election campaign. Early on, the Tories’ blizzard of statistics purporting to show an “economic miracle” left voters cold and a bit mystified. The Tories panicked and spent a week trying to be more Labour than Labour with promises to splurge cash on the NHS and freeze rail fares. That didn’t work either – because it wasn’t credible coming from them. Finally, they reverted to what they do best: a highly emotional appeal to English nationalism coupled with lurid scare stories about the red and tartan menace about take over Britain. Everyone agrees that achieved “cut through” with voters, even if the Tories’ credibility is so shot that it doesn’t seem to have shifted many actual votes. But it did at least stabilise a campaign which seemed to be in meltdown three weeks ago.

One of the features of this later phase of the Tory campaign is the way they have stopped responding to arguments based on statistics at all: they just ignore them and press on with their emotional case. Household incomes down since 2010? “Alex Salmond is going to pick your pocket”. Record use of food banks? “The Labour recession.” Unbelievable cuts on the way? “Benefit scroungers.” Debt higher than in 2010? “Labour chaos! Greece! Jockalypse!” It ain’t pretty, it ain’t fair, but there’s a coherent message for people to respond to (think about how a novel can be completely coherent even though it’s all made up): Labour caused the recession. Labour spent too much of your money. Labour will do it again, aided and abetted by the SNP, who also want to steal your money. They want to break up the country. They’ll sell us out to Europe, and so on. Yes, it’s bollocks, but it’s coherent bollocks.

Labour has mostly tried to unpick the Tory case bit by bit – the recession was global, the deficit wasn’t that high by international standards, our plans are fully costed and set out in our manifesto and carved on a slab of stone we’re going to stick in the Downing Street garden – rather than make a coherent emotional appeal itself.

François Mitterrand speaking at Caen during the 1981 presidential campaign.

François Mitterrand wasn’t particularly left-wing but succeeded in making an emotional connection with voters.

Labour could say boldly that a decent welfare state is the cornerstone of a civilised society, especially in an uncertain globalised economy; it could argue that the recession was the product of decades of craven accommodation to the financial markets, pointing out how those markets can, in François Mitterrand’s memorable words, “ruin the work of millions of men and women in a few hours”; it could argue that public spending and collective endeavour built the world’s best universities, developed the internet, and established the world’s most successful universal healthcare system and the world’s most respected broadcaster (not to mention defeated the Nazis). When Labour has made some headway in this campaign, it’s been by making these emotional appeals rather than fighting on the Conservatives’ home ground.

For Lakoff, Tony Blair’s “third way” was just a symptom of the left’s confusion. We’re supposed to be against inequality but we’ve pursued free market policies which widened inequalities. We’re supposed to be against racism and xenophobia, but we’ve competed with Tories over who can be nastier to immigrants. We’re supposed to be against rampant corporate greed, but we’ve encouraged financial and property speculation and and let some very wealthy businesses pass their tax obligations onto working people. This isn’t compromise or moderation, it’s just weakness and incoherence.

And too often the left opposes the right in purely instrumental terms. We oppose benefit cuts by arguing the toss over the extent of the abuses. Instead we should be defending the principle of a welfare state and the values behind it — equality, human dignity, maintaining stable families and communities (remember when it was, rightly, called “social security”?) When the right attacks unions, we point out how far unions have been reformed, how little threat they pose to the oligarchs who control the global economy, how the “red menace” has been exaggerated. Instead, we should be asking how else working people are to supposed to get a fair day’s pay for a long day’s work.

This doesn’t mean a lurch to the left in policy terms. It’s more about emphasising what you stand for rather than the compromises you will inevitably have to make. There is a moral and emotional case for moderate social democracy as well as for more exotic forms of leftism. Labour’s policies in this election are actually more distinct from the Tories than at any time since 1992, but you’d never know it because the argument has been mostly about responding to what the Tories say is important. Which leads Labour wide open to allegations from nationalists and Greens that it’s betrayed working class voters.

If you think back over the last five years, it’s still much easier to grasp what the Tories stand for than what Labour is all about. From their campaign, you’d never guess the Tories have been in coalition and have achieved almost none of the objectives they set out in 2010. They’ve stuck to talking about what they stand for and what they’re against. Labour, on the other hand, has spent most the campaign talking about what they won’t do. That silly stone apart, Miliband’s done it quite well, but Labour had ceded too much ground before the campaign begun. It can take years for political ideas to resonate with the public: people didn’t really “get” Thatcherism until about 1985.

Lakoff’s argument doesn’t so much explain why Labour doesn’t win elections as why it fails to lay the foundations for future victories and build up the kind of loyalty that can see you through rough times. And it may explain why the left has to keep fighting the same battles over and over again.

Tenement tales

Here’s a quick thought on Labour’s plans for rent controls.

Existing private landlords are presumably making a profit. If they’re not, they wouldn’t be in business or would already be in the process of withdrawing their properties from the market. So, if they’re making a profit at current rents and are still allowed to raise them by inflation, they’ll still be making a profit next year. In fact, in real terms, they’ll be making the same profit as this year. And the same the year after that. So why would they withdraw from the rental market? Would they prefer to make nothing at all than the same – presumably satisfactory – level of profit they’re making already?

The argument that rent controls will always reduce the supply of property is based on the fantasy that we have a perfectly functioning market for rental property where landlords are just about breaking even. If we did, then aggressive rent controls might force some landlords out of the business. But does anyone seriously think we live in that world?

Tory views on the rental market are about as realistic as monopoly board prices.

Tory views on the rental market are about as realistic as monopoly board prices.

In any case, Labour isn’t proposing to set rent levels, cut rents or even freeze them, just to limit rent rises to inflation for three years. In other words, to protect the profits landlords are making already. So the Tories are asking us to accept the deeply stupid argument that private landlords are making losses and just haven’t got round to adjusting their rents yet. They seem to think it’s landlords, not tenants, who are struggling to make ends meet.

What Labour’s controls will do is stop some landlords exploiting the housing shortage and people’s desperation to stay in their own homes by jacking up rents way above inflation, often with little or no notice. The balance of power in the rental market is very unequal, as anyone who’s tried renting in the last 30 years knows only too well. So who are the Conservatives really protecting here?

Two other points: first, most other Western countries use some form of rent control, including France, Germany and many parts of America. And housing for rent is generally much cheaper and more plentiful there than it is here. Second, rent controls are massively popular – a recent poll showed supporters outnumbering opponents by more than eight to one. If I were Ed, I’d stick with this one.

This miracle is just an illusion


One of the striking features of this bizarre election campaign is the Tories’ puzzled rage at the stubborn refusal of voters to come down decisively in their favour. It’s an attitude that is perfectly captured in this piece from Spectator editor Fraser Nelson in today’s Telegraph.

Fraser’s been looking at the figures and concludes that there has been an “economic miracle”. And like many other Tories, he’s very frustrated that you – the voters – aren’t more grateful. Unemployment is falling, inflation and interest rates are at record lows, even average incomes are finally starting to rise. Cameron should be walking it, for fuck’s sake! But the election is deadlocked. Even the most optimistic Tory supporter has given up hope of winning a Commons majority. All they want to talk about it what might happen if they lose.

Fraser’s slightly complicated (it involves Sweden) diagnosis of the problem is, basically, that Cameron has failed to come up with a vision for the future to put alongside his economic “miracle” of the recent past. My diagnosis would be more straightforward: there is no economic miracle, at least as far as most voters are concerned.

“The economy is doing so well that even the Conservatives struggle to keep up with it,” Fraser says. I don’t see how anyone remotely in touch with ordinary working people could write a sentence like that. Ask most voters – real people on normal incomes who went to comprehensive schools – and the best you’ll probably get is a grudging shrug of the shoulders: “Maybe things are a bit better than they were.”

Fraser talks about job creation and falling unemployment as if all “jobs” are the same. But if you’ve lost a reasonably secure, full-time job with proper wages, and found something on the minimum wage with a zero-hours contract, you’re not going to thank David Cameron much. It still counts as a “job” in the government’s statistics, but it doesn’t count as a reason to vote Tory.

Fraser talks about “zero inflation”, but do you know anyone who thinks their cost of living hasn’t risen in the last five years? I can’t say if the Office for National Statistics are measuring the wrong things (but a “cost of living” index that excludes the biggest cost of living – housing – does seem odd) or whether people’s perceptions are just wrong. But I do know that, when it can cost £321 to go from London to Manchester by train, and a quarter of a million to buy a crappy one-bedroom flat, telling people they’re enjoying “zero inflation” could get you a punch in the mouth. It’s a good way to signal to voters that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Fraser says “salaries are now rising at their fastest rate for six years”. Well – big deal, after the last five years of falling or stagnant household incomes and blanket wage freezes in the public sector. Does he really expect people to be grateful for this slight uptick, caused more by falling inflation than rising wages? Like most right-wingers, Fraser likes to use “average” (i.e. arithmetic mean) figures for incomes, since it only takes a few people at the top to be doing nicely to create the illusion that we’re all better off. Median figures are much more telling. And this is the figure that’s killing the Tories: after inflation, median wages are still 10% down on 2008. This is the world most voters live in.

And Fraser talks about “billion-hours Britain” – calling on us to rejoice that the number of hours we work is about to pass the billion mark for the first time. It simply doesn’t occur to him that to many working people this just means working harder and longer for the same or lower wages.

Likewise, we hear a lot (although not from Fraser on this occasion) about “record low interest rates”. Yes, the Bank of England’s base rate has been 1% since 2009. But who, exactly, is paying 1%? Can you get 1% on a mortgage, a loan or a credit card? Not a chance. The rates paid by ordinary people are far higher, and have barely changed since the 2008 crash. Low mortgage rates aren’t much use anyway if the price of the house you want to buy has spiralled out of reach. It’s not interest rates that are low, just one particular interest rate. And only a few people benefit from it.

Which brings us to inequality. I don’t doubt Fraser’s sincerity on this: in the face of all the evidence from history, he really believes inequality can be tackled by conservative means. But he’s missing the point: inequality isn’t an “other” issue that voters can safely turn to now the economy’s booming again. “Inequality” isn’t separate from “the economy”, as he seems to think. Inequality is what’s happening to voters now. Inequality is why people look at the same statistics as Fraser and draw quite different conclusions: “That isn’t happening to me or anyone I know. But someone else must be doing all right.”

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all this is going to win Labour the election. The Tories have probably done enough for middle-class voters to inch ahead as the largest party. But if they still think they’re going to get an overall majority, they’re deluding themselves. Obsessed by the “air war” – in which they bombard voters with the economic statistics they think are important – they haven’t noticed that they’re losing the ground war against the weight of people’s actual experiences. And voters know that people pedalling miracles are usually quacks.

Tories don’t get this because they have no idea what it’s like to be at the shitty end of the economic stick. Or that free-market globalisation is forcing more and more people towards that unpleasant end. They think the numbers look good and expect ordinary voters to be grateful. But people don’t trust government figures anymore; they prefer to go on their own experiences and those of people around them. Hence the Tories’ furious puzzlement when voters refuse to be told they’re better off and dutifully show their gratitude at the ballot box.

Beware the Orange Fruitcake alliance

Orange Fruitcake with Toffee Sauce, from Edible Garden.

David Cameron’s Tories have spent the whole week talking up and talking down the prospect of a post-election deal between the SNP and a minority Labour government. It’s certainly a possibility. According to the polls, it could be the only viable government after 7 May. Cameron is entitled to ask questions about post-election deals. But he should be prepared to answer them too.

As far as I’m aware, Cameron hasn’t ruled out doing a deal with anyone, although there’s probably no need to press him on whether Nicola or Gerry Adams will be getting a call. He’s certainly open to another coalition with the Lib-Dems, as is Nick Clegg. And he hasn’t ruled out the gruesome prospect of an “Orange Fruitcake” alliance with the hardline Protestant DUP from Northern Ireland and UKIP, with or without Clegg’s rump of 20 or so MPs. Or if he has, he must have been whispering.

Tories breezily say that won’t happen. That can only be because they’re still deluded enough to think they’re going to get a majority, or they don’t think they’ll get close enough for the Orangemen and the Fruitcakes to get them over the line.

Cameron should tell us what price he’s willing to pay for the support of people who believe the Pope is the Antichrist and all the problems in the NHS are caused by too many foreigners using it and working for it. Is he willing to lift restrictions on marching Orangemen and scrap the BBC licence fee, as the DUP wants, and give in to the party’s blatant demands for cash? Is he prepared to scrap HS2, foreign aid and wind farms, then campaign to leave the EU this year, as Nigel Farage demands? Cameron won’t answer these questions because he doesn’t think you’re entitled to ask them.

There are other questions too. Just what does Cameron think should happen if Labour and the SNP are the only viable majority (with or without Clegg’s rump)? That no government should be formed, leaving him as caretaker PM pending a second election? (I suppose there might just be time for the Tories to arrange Boris’s coronation). Or is he offering to support a minority Labour government? After all, if a Labour-SNP alliance is such a grave threat, isn’t it his patriotic duty to support a Miliband government if it’s the only alternative? Or do the interests of the Conservative party, as often seems to be the case, trump those of the country? Bet you he won’t answer any of those either.

It’s simply hypocritical to deny the SNP a say in government because it only represents Scottish interests, while being willing to negotiate with a party that only represents a sectarian interest within Northern Ireland.

And hypocrisy is just another form of arrogance. Hypocrisy says, “I’m special. I have rights that you don’t.” No, for Cameron the real difference is simply that the DUP would be supporting a Conservative government not a Labour one. In Cameron’s mind, the Conservative party seems to have special rights over who forms a government, even after it has lost an election. Combinations of other parties – Labour, SNP and Plaid – even with a parliamentary majority, are “illegitimate”, while the Conservatives, as the “natural” party of government, reserve the right to form an alliance with whomever they wish.

Arrogance and a limitless sense of entitlement has been one of the worst features of Cameron’s government. The really scary prospect after this election is an alliance between a party with that mentality and the bigots, xenophobes and sectarians of UKIP and the DUP. The Orange Fruitcake alliance is the biggest threat to Britain’s future.

Election 2015 – a road to nowhere

Following the election campaign? Clear as mud, right?

Well, one thing that’s clear is that neither the Tories nor Labour have any confidence in the vision they’re selling. Even after last week’s slick manifesto launch, I’ve still no idea what sort of country David Cameron wants us to be living in ten years from now. I don’t think he does either. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband seems to be running a 50:50 campaign: 50% Blairite, 50% old Labour; 50% leftish populism, 50% neo-con. But it’s not a smooth blend. It’s got a funny taste. The best I can say is that is has about a 50% chance of success (narrowly defined as stopping another Tory-led government).

Both Labour and the Tories are terrified of making mistakes but frustrated by the deadlock in the polls. This is pushing both old parties into making seemingly daring, but ultimately fatuous, incursions into each other’s territories.

So the Tories, who condemned Labour’s energy price freeze as “Stalinist”, now promise to do exactly the same thing with rail fares. Labour, which has spent five years attacking austerity, now threatens us with its triple lock of fiscal rectitude, which sounds like a particularly nasty sex toy. Meanwhile, the Tories are spending money like it’s going out of fashion, with squillions extra suddenly magicked up for the NHS, housing subsidies, tax cuts and childcare. I don’t get it.

But I’m not meant to get it. The policies don’t makes sense, but the politicians don’t care. The two old parties are beyond ideological or political coherence and are just tossing out messages they think people want to hear. At the last minute, both seem to have woken up to the fact that a “core vote” strategy won’t work because neither of them have enough core voters. It might once have worked for Labour, due its current advantage in the electoral system and its slightly higher core vote, but that was before the meltdown in Scotland. That electoral advantage is now working in favour of the SNP, which is happily mopping up Labour’s core vote north of the border. But the SNP surge hurts Labour without helping the Tories get over the line.

Hence the increasingly desperate scrap for a handful of votes, focusing on neutralising the negatives for each party. All of which leaves us even more clueless about what the two old parties really stand for.

Neither really understands swing voters, and neither leadership really likes its own core voters. Cameron is said to privately despise the antediluvian pensioners and right-wing fruitcakes who dominate most Conservative associations. And Labour too often shows disdain for working class people and working class values. The Tories cling to their discredited free market ideology, but are ready to toss it aside when the going gets tough, shown as much by George Osborne’s retreat from austerity after 2012 as last week’s desperate unfunded spending promises. Labour, which has lost two ideologies (socialism and Blairism) but has yet to find a third, hides behind bland statements of values (which could just as well appear on Tory banners) and appeals to vacuous concepts like “everyday people”.

I’ve been a member of the Labour party for thirty years. I will vote Labour on 7 May because, in the end, this election – for all its complexity – comes down to a choice between a party of the rich, which behaves exactly like a party of the rich when it’s in power, and the other lot. I prefer the other lot. The Labour party has to rely on the votes of working people to win elections. The Tories have to court Ukippers and can’t help but look after their own. Labour will not try to destroy the NHS or the BBC. The Tories might do for both. Labour has to try to do something about ever widening inequality or risk destroying itself. The Tories are turning Britain into a billionaire’s playground. Labour might not reverse that, but it has no interest in encouraging it. For this election at least, that will have to be enough.

Perhaps this is a transitional election and a new political system will emerge with new alternatives on the left that are more convincing than the Greens or George Galloway’s clowns (but don’t hold your breath). The election after this one could be fought in a different country – I can’t see any way in which the situation in Scotland can be reversed. England itself might begin to break up into regional blocs and could become ungovernable. I’ve no idea, and neither has anyone else. The one crumb of comfort is that whatever cobbled-together outfit gets around the cabinet table next month, they’re unlikely to last five years. They’ll be lucky to last five months.

Up in the air – the election and the NHS

Healthcare Manager 25 cover, Spring 2015.It’s already become a cliché to describe the 2015 general election as the “NHS election”. But clichés are often just things that are true. Polls show the NHS is the most important issue for voters, ahead of the economy, immigration or Europe. The papers are full of NHS stories – at the time of writing, there has been one on the front page of at least one national for eight days. Which party gets the first go at forming a government on 8 May may well depend on who voters mistrust the least on the NHS. [Read the rest…]

Because they’re worth it

Don’t be put off by the bowler hat on the cover of Owen Jones’s The Establishment. Top civil servants are barely mentioned. There’s little about aristocrats, only passing references to Oxbridge, and nothing at all about fagging.

For Jones, author of the bestselling Chavs, it’s not the old school tie but ideas that bind the “new Establishment” together: free markets, a minimal state, hyper-individualism and a sense of limitless entitlement. This amounts to a “common mentality which holds that those at the top deserve their power”. If the Establishment had a motto, says Jones, it would be L’Oréal’s slogan: “Because I’m worth it.”

The right-wing blogger “Guido Fawkes” (AKA Paul Staines) calls this what it is: plutocracy. In a slightly creepy, moustache-twirling contribution, he tells Jones that undermining politicians is about undermining democracy itself. “It suits my ideological game plan,” he says. “Democracy always leads to… those who don’t have [taking] from those who do have.”

Fawkes, says Jones, is one of the Establishment “outriders” – people who pose as dissidents while working to shift mainstream thinking towards Establishment ideology. Jones traces their origins back to Mont Pèlerin in Switzerland in 1947, where a group of right-wing thinkers and economists (my distinction is deliberate) met to plot the ideological fightback against post-war social democracy.

Jones’s assault on this ideology is clear, well-argued and passionate, but it’s not clear why he needs to shoehorn it into an awkward, institutional concept like “the Establishment” – especially as trying to pin down who’s in and who’s out causes him so much trouble.

The book abounds with people from Establishment institutions – economists, senior police officers, journalists, even some Tory MPs and bankers – who are critical of this dominant ideology. Often the evidence Jones uses to expose how it has corrupted British public life comes from the same institutions supposedly in its merciless grip. And he can’t decide whether the “libertarian” ideas espoused by many working-class Tories and UKIP supporters constitutes Establishment thinking or not.

For example, Jones says that allegations of left-wing bias are “a way of controlling the BBC”. But that would be unnecessary if the corporation was the “consistent platform for Establishment perspectives” that he describes. In fact, there is plenty on the BBC – comedy, drama and current affairs – which challenges free-market ideology, as well as plenty that doesn’t. Jones’s claims about a uniform BBC political ideology are simply wrong.

Jones is excellent how corporate interests have manipulated the state for their own ends, sucking up lucrative government contracts while simultaneously avoiding tax. His account, for example, of how A4e milked taxpayers for hundreds of millions of pounds, hugely enriching its founder Emma Harrison in the process (staff even nicknamed the firm “All for Emma”), while providing an abysmal service to jobseekers, is devastating even if not exactly news.

Ferocious attacks from Amazon users and some right-wing hacks ludicrously cite Jones’s left-wing politics – and Oxford education – as reasons not to read a left-wing book. But few put up much defence against the facts as he lays them out. More balanced critics point out that what Jones describes is not an establishment but a consensus. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a rotten one. Or that it cannot be changed.

How to keep the United Kingdom (sort of) together

Okay, panic over, here’s the answer to the West Lothian Question.

England is going to get its own parliament one way or another, so let’s have a proper parliament and not a rump group of Westminster MPs doing a spot of English legislating in their spare time. That means an English prime minister and cabinet, accountable to an English House of Commons – an English government in name as well as practice.

The governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have power over the same things – basically everything except those powers they agree to share through the UK (pretty similar to the “Devo Max” deal offered to Scotland at the last minute, as the union seemed to be slipping away).

For the UK, we directy elect the UK “prime minister” (best not say “president” while my fellow citizens retain their sentimental attachment to the House of Windsor – but how about “President of the Council” for those who, like me, enjoy finding new uses for old things?). He or she would head a small cabinet dealing with UK-wide matters, which we could call the Council of State (or even the Privy Council if you like – sorry, can’t stop myself).

I’m not convinced we would even need a UK parliament. We would have four perfectly good parliaments already, and how many parliaments does one small archipelago need? There wouldn’t be much UK legislation – most laws would be domestic matters – so what there is would have to be ratified by all four parliaments (and hence, in practice, negotiated first – what a novelty!). A less stringent alternative would be to have all four parliaments “meeting together” as the UK parliament (they don’t have to be physically in the same place – we have the technology for that). You could have some sort of weighting system, so that England gets more say than the smaller nations, but not 85% of the say.

There you have it: no cumbersome regional assemblies in England that no one wants; no asymmetric distribution of powers storing up trouble and sowing instability for the future; no Barnett formula; no ridiculous “double-hatting” by the UK prime minister dabbling as England’s PM two days a week (what happens if the UK prime minister is a Scottish or Welsh MP?); no paralysis in England when the UK government lacks an English majority; no need for increasingly meaningless Westminster elections (with ever dwindling turnouts) in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And no need for any resentment – it’s a voluntary union and everyone has the same powers over their own affairs.

Of course there are a lot of detail to be worked out, but I can’t see any serious problems. My biggest headache is where to stick the UK prime minster, assuming the English PM bagsies the keys to Number Ten… You know, there must be a lot of room in that big grey building at the end of the Mall.