Welcome to my Blog

I am a semi-retired former Scottish trade union policy wonk, now working on a range of projects. All views are my own, not any of the organisations I work with. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Plunder of the Commons

Public wealth takes precedence over private riches. This is a policy prescription from what became known as the Lauderdale paradox. The Earl of Lauderdale in 1804 argued that there was an inverse correlation between public wealth and private riches such that an increase in the latter often served to diminish the former.

This is one of many classical ideas that underpin a new book by Guy Standing, 'Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth'. While most people are familiar with Magna Carta, there was a second document, scarcely known today, but at the time of its sealing was regarded as equally fundamental. This was the Charter of the Forest, which was about the rights of commoners to use and manage common resources. The Charter was also among the first environmental law statues as it placed implicit limits on the exploitation of natural resources.

Standing takes the principles of this Charter and looks at how they have been abused over the years, and then applies them in a modern context. He starts with how common land has been captured by private interests from the enclosures to the Highland clearances and modern-day encroachments - leaving most land in the hands of the very few, not the many. Common land today makes up only 7% of Scotland and 5% of the UK as a whole. The tenth Duke of Buccleuch is Britain's largest private landowner. As the descendant of an illegitimate son of Charles II, he inherited 277,000 acres, for which he did not do a day's work.

Land ownership continues to be concentrated in a few hands. For example, over 33,000 small-to-medium-sized farms have closed down since the mid-2000s. Forests, public parks, National Parks and even village greens have been whittled away into private ownership. This has a wider impact. For example, parks save the NHS £113 million a year as a result of fewer visits to the doctor. They also reduce heat in built-up areas and help manage run-off from heavy storms.

The book gives many other examples of how 'The Natural Commons' have been destroyed or privatised. Urban trees, water, seashores, air, sky, wind, and the minerals beneath our feet. Fracking without the landowner's permission is a recent example. Put simply; privatisation has paved the way for a pervasive colonisation of what had been commons.

Standing takes a similar approach to other, less obvious 'commons'. These include the 'social commons', public services that are provided outwith the private market and have been built up over generations. The 'civil commons' shows how access to justice (charges, legal aid, etc.) has been whittled away, and even criminal justice has been privatised. 

The arts, sport, the mass media, public libraries, art galleries, museums, concert halls and public places for performances are all part of our 'cultural commons'. He shows how the depletion of the cultural commons in the twenty-first century has been extensive and devastating, accelerated by the prolonged period of austerity. Concerns over the use of big data are covered in his' knowledge commons'. He argues that everyone should have access to adequate information and shows how corporate interests have captured information through enclosure, commodification, privatisation and ideological capture.

What I like about this book is that while providing excellent analysis, it also provides solutions - 44 of them. The final chapters offer a modern Charter of the Commons, to promote an ecologically sustainable society in which security, freedom and equality can flourish. There are too many to list in a blog post. However, a key recommendation is the establishment of a Commons Fund, sourced by levies on the commercial use or exploitation of the commons. These levies would also give all citizens a sense of collective ownership, even if some cost them personally.

Private wealth should be the starting point for the fund as it has increased at the expense of public wealth. Only 4% of tax revenues in the UK come from wealth. Standing proposes a progressive tax on inherited wealth or a general wealth tax, which already exists in a number of countries. Other sources of income include a Land Value Tax, Carbon Levy, Frequent Flyer Levy, Cruise Liner Levy, water use and others. These all have the advantage of encouraging less environmentally damaging activity. 

A Digital Data Levy addresses the use of our personal data by companies that are adept at tax avoidance, putting little back into our economy and public services. A similar approach is suggested to intellectual property rights, including an end to subsidies for Patents.

A number of us are sceptical that Basic Income will work without it being funded at a meaningful level. Standing argues that the Commons Fund could be one route to such a Basic Income. He also argues that a Basic Income also comes with an obligation to be an active citizen.

Overall, this is a very welcome, and concise, contribution to the debate about ownership, public services and inequality. I'll finish with this paragraph from the concluding chapter:

"The commons are our collective heritage. They cannot be alienated legitimately unless we, as citizens, decide that is what we wish, recognising that we are custodians for future generations as well as ours. Privatising and commercialising the commons, and most particularly colonising them, amounts to theft. It is a form of corruption intended to generate rental income for a few, from newly created 'property rights'. And it is regressive. The loss of the commons most affects those who rely on it the most."

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

How we can finance the future

I am in Cape Town, South Africa, this week speaking at the global summit, 'Financing the Future'.

This is a gathering of the global divest/invest movement. The aim is to shift finance flows away from fossil fuels and into climate solutions as the right way to 'finance the future’. The conference is hearing from experts and campaigners who describe why these approaches are indispensable to solving the climate crisis and ensuring universal access to clean, reliable, affordable sources of energy.

There have been some inspirational contributions, including the deCOALonize campaign in Kenya who took on huge corporations, Chinese investors and the government to stop the development of a coal industry in Kenya. Or the Dakota Sioux who opposed the oil pipeline that threatens their environment. 

There was also inspiration and support for what young people have achieved with their campaigns, including the 20 September climate strike. Back home, today’s Scottish Household Survey highlights almost two-thirds of adults viewed climate change as an immediate and urgent problem. The greatest increase in concern is among adults aged 16-24, rising from 38% in 2013 to 67% in 2018.

However, there is plenty of hard-headed analysis as well. The movement has just passed $11 trillion of managed investment funds committed to divestment from fossil fuels. I was impressed by the understanding that this not only an environmental issue. It is just as much about economic and human rights, about global justice.

Exxon Mobil is dying
I talked about Scotland's cross-party political commitment to tackle climate action. That ambition has resulted in good progress in decarbonising our electricity generation, although we remain in the middle of the emissions league table because of limited work on transport and heat.

I also referenced the importance of Just Transition. Sadly, having to point out that as you travel across Scotland, you pass thousands of wind turbines, precious few of which were manufactured in Scotland. We have plenty of experience in our coal and steel communities of bad transitions – the consequences of which remain with us today. Scotland’s Just Transition Commission is very welcome, but it must be more than a 'good intentions' commission. There has to be a real route map, with a jobs guarantee and a commitment to solutions that eliminate poverty and inequality. As Sam Smith from the ITUC put it: “a world where emissions are down, but actually people have decent and better lives.”.

My contribution also covered the practical issues associated with pension divestment and investment. Shifting our pensions funds into a long-term horizon - to recognise that fiduciary duty is no longer an excuse for inaction when the evidence is clear that fossil fuels are not a viable investment. I highlighted the practical measures in the UNISON guide as a template for pension trustees to not only divest but also invest in a different future. 

Being in Africa gives you a different perspective on these issues. Two-thirds of Africa doesn’t have grid access to electricity and little prospect of the marketised electricity system delivering much improvement. However, there are innovative schemes using solar and mini-grids in countries like Zambia and Nigeria.

It was also interesting to talk to South African unions and environmental groups about coal mining in that country, where Just Transition hasn't got much beyond the aspiration stage. A story involving Malawi illustrates other practical challenges. The energy minister told one delegate that he would love to build renewable electricity generation, but the only financing offer he had was from the Chinese to build a coal plant!

There was a lot of discussion about alternative investment. For example, mini-grids in Nigeria face 35% interest rates, staggering for someone coming from Scotland. There are probably not enough investment opportunities in renewables for constrained investors like pension funds, who need scale, low risk and have limited expertise. That’s why other socially useful investment is equally important like housing and other forms of infrastructure. 

Overall, there is plenty of inspiration for change here, and some fantastic projects and campaigns are going on worldwide. It seems appropriate being in South Africa to end with a Nelson Mandela quote: "It always seems impossible until it's done.”