Archive for January, 2013

Defence of the Union: Britain is better together

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

In 2014 there will be a referendum in Scotland on whether Scotland should be an independent state and leave the Union. Frankly I find it ridiculous that the question is even being asked as the answer is so clearly no. Essentially nothing is gained that could not be gained by internal reorganisation within the UK and much is lost.

Personally I was born in Scotland and have lived slightly less than half my life there, the rest being spent in England and some of my great grandparents were Scottish. However I have always lived in Britain and always been British. I am one of the significant number of people who would need dual nationality if Scotland were to become independent because we simply do not fit into the ‘English’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘Scottish’ categories, only in ‘British’.

All the arguments I have heard in favour of independence which are valid such as those which have convinced a slim majority of Scottish Green Party members are not in fact relevant to the question of independence. Rather they relate to the debate on the localisation of different powers at different scales from national to local. Obviously the positioning of park benches should not be done by act of the UK parliament and NHS policy should not be determined individually on a ward level – there is an appropriate scale for different decisions to be made at. There is a very interesting debate on what should be decided at what scale and I think a great deal of room for improvement on this. However none of that is relevant to the question of Scottish independence – or if it is it is just as relevant to the question of independence for the Highlands.

The only issues relevant to the decision on whether Scotland should break the Union are ones which must be decided at the national level and could not be devolved to Scotland. Fundamentally the only issues which then apply are international ones, all domestic issues can be reorganised as we like and the rest of the world does not need to know or care but the interface we provide to the world is that of the nation.

So only international issues matter to the debate on independence, and an independent Scotland would leave both Scotland and the rest of the UK worse off in many different ways and not make things better in any way. Currently the UK punches above its weight in international affairs, Scotland would not gain that and the rest of the UK would lose it. For example the UK has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This is justifiable for more than just historical reasons (Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Lybia) but only tenuously and without Scotland it would be hard to justify it continuing to have a seat. Currently the UK is big enough that when it is necessary for something to be done on the world stage (take action on climate change, stop genocide etc.) then the UK can go ‘Well we are going to do this, who is with us?’ we don’t have to persuade a whole bunch of countries to act in lockstep with us, we can lead[0]. Obviously we then need to persuade other countries to follow us but it is possible to try to lead. I think it is easier to persuade people to follow if they can see that you mean it by your actions than when it can only be words because action is impossible without their help.

Similarly within the EU the UK has a fair bit of influence (for all that David Cameron tries to throw that away). We will not gain any more by being two countries rather than one, Scotland will probably need to reapply for membership post-independence and that might take a few years of sitting out in the cold. Currently when a country needs to take a lead on an issue the UK can do that. It would be hard to see Scotland doing so to the same extent and the rest of the UK’s hand would also be weakened.

A Union was made and formed Great Britain, whatever the perceived legitimacy by current standards of the people involved in making that Union the fact remains that it was made. That was not a temporary treaty or a fair weather thing. That was and is a permanent covenant thing. A sickness and in health, in good economic times and in bad, in peace and war for all time and without end thing. As such it should not be lightly broken. I fail to see what the pressing issue is as to why Britain cannot continue as it is. Some bad things happened in the past long before I was born, why does that even matter? The future is ours to decide and the past remains unchanging whatever revenge is taken for past evil actions they are not undone.

The breaking of a Union would also be a permanent and unalterable thing, not a decision to revisit in 10, 50 or 100 years if it does not work out but one made with finality for all time. While right now the world is a fairly safe place to be as a rich nation [1] that might not always be the case, it certainly has not always been the case. There are many reasons to be uncertain of where the world as a whole will be in 50, 100 or 300 years, let alone thousands of years. This is a decision which needs to be made considering such time-scales rather than just temporary political circumstances.

There have been times when we have stood together when we would not have been able to stand alone. There was a time, still just in living memory when the UK stood alone in Europe, a light against the darkness. Stood and lasted until others came to our aid but only by a very thin margin. Perhaps as allies we could have stood together and lasted, but perhaps disagreements and infighting would have weakened us and a darkness might have fallen across the world. For 300 years we have stood together, one nation against all adversities. Our soldiers have fought together against various foes, bled and died for us, for Britain as much for the mountains of Scotland and Wales as for the hills of England. Should we betray them?

This Union has been sealed with blood in more than one way, in those years people have moved freely between the two and married in each place, there is no real division by race any more. Not that divisions by race really have any meaning any more. What does the colour of the skin matter or where your great great grandparents came from. You are still human.

What then divides us? Not race for there has been much movement between the two. Nor language for British English is spoken in both and variation is greater within each than between them. Nor of geography for the border has been drawn at various places at different times. While different parts of the landscape of each are beautiful in different ways there are places in both where it is hard to tell a Scottish hill for an English or Welsh one and more difference between the Highlands and the Central Belt than between the Central Belt and other parts of England. Nor economics for while the statistics might be different for Scotland as a whole from England as a whole, parts of Scotland match closely with parts of England. You will find places where manufacturing died in both, where tourism is the main industry, where there are high-tech companies or a strong service industry. Is then all that divides us old grudges, memories of past wrongs? Then know this: this is a fallen broken world and the mistakes made by countries and people are many and varied and the depth of the evil that is committed knows few bounds. For life it is necessary to forgive, and to ask for forgiveness: To strive once again to build a better future out of the broken fragments of the past. Fundamentally we are better together and long may we be so.

[0]: Iraq was a terrible illegal mistake but that was not our idea, we were following rather than leading. We also lack the courage to lead as we should on issues like Climate Change.

[1]: To a first approximation no one dies from terrorism in rich nations, our security services do a rather good job at stopping that sort of thing. We should try fixing our road collisions problem that kills many more people.

NHS IT policies that waste NHS money (and could easily be fixed)

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

Computer systems built for national scales are expensive – especially given the perverse incentives for previous and current government IT projects which practically guarantee that they will go over budget. However it is also important to remember that a computer system should make it easy and quick for a user to do what they need to do – it should not get in their way and slow them down – fundamentally the user’s time is paid for by the NHS (some of them at quite a high rate) and if they spend hours dealing with irrelevant trivialities of the computer systems they are using then that money is wasted.

Much nhs email goes via nhsmail. This imposes a 200MB quota for all users. That is tiny. Disk space is cheap, really cheap at the 2GB level and really it should be possible to offer 20GB per user without too much difficulty. So every user of nhsmail must periodically spend their valuable time deleting emails that are no longer vital. Occasionally they will make mistakes and delete emails that are actually important potentially directly impacting patient care. This is just silly. I am guessing the order of magnitude of the cost of fixing this (by buying more servers) is X00,000 and that this would easily pay for itself in terms of increased efficiency across the NHS within a year.

The NHS systems also have a ridiculous system of requiring users to change their passwords periodically. This is well know[0] to actually make security worse and to provide no benefit as users pick worse passwords to make them easier to remember (and to break) and then increment numbers on the end or similar (which unfortunately makes it harder to remember due to within list effects – people can’t remember which password they are on). So this is a policy that wastes staff time, makes security worse and should be fixable by someone unticking a few boxes marked ‘force users to change their passwords’ or similar. Unfortunately various incompetent IT auditing agencies always tell organisations without periodic password changing policies that they need to institute one – this is good grounds for firing the agency as they clearly have no idea what they are doing.

[0]: ‘Although change regimes are employed to reduce the impact of an undetected security breach, our findings suggest they reduce the overall password security in an organization. Users required to change their passwords frequently produce less secure password content (because they have to be more memorable) and disclose their passwords more frequently. Many of the users felt forced into these circumventing procedures, which subsequently decreased their own security motivation. Ultimately, this produces a spiraling decline in users’ password behavior (“I cannot remember my password, I have to write it down, everyone knows it’s on a post-it in my drawer, so I might as well stick it on the screen and tell everyone who wants to know.”)’