The Social Contract 2.0: Big data and the need to guarantee privacy and civil liberties

Much has been written regarding the rate of technological innovation and how these advancements might provide solutions to the emerging challenges facing humanity in the 21st century and beyond.A number of new technologies raise questions of our relationships to these technologies, and will be crucial to consider in terms of their sociological and cultural impact. Ultimately we must consider how specific technologies might either preserve or threaten human dignity, and thus what sorts of empowerment or regulation will be most appropriate. The integrity ofthe social fabric at various strata relies upon—often unspoken—understandings held in common by individual members of those social strata.

The idea of a social contract has a long history, dating back to various ancient cultures, ranging from the ancient Egyptians, Hammurabi, Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian and the traditions of the three monolithic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, a more recent exploration started with Grotius, Hobbes, Locke and, of course, Rousseau, who explored the limits of individual freedom, and the power of the sovereign. From Locke`s conception of the state as a “neutral judge”, to Rousseau, Rawls and others, all perspectives of the social contract ultimately seek to explore why rational individuals would consent to give up some of their freedoms as a trade-off for living in a political order.

A common thread in the social contract theory is the assumption that the state and political order exist for the general interest of the people, where life, liberty and property can be protected. What does this mean in an age of rapidly emerging technologies, Big Data, intense mobility and deepening connectivity and interdependence that transcend normal sovereign borders? Now seems to be an appropriate time to reassess some of our long-held credos about our liberties, the functions of the sovereign and the limits of control.

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A Separate or United Kingdom: The context and consequences of the independence referendum

Iain McLean on Scotland, oil revenues, NATO, and the EU

Professor Iain McLean of Nuffield College, Oxford, co-author of Scotland’s Choices, was interviewed by Bloomberg TV about his research which claims that accounting for changes in oil revenues and transfers from the rest of the UK would leave Scots about £480 per person worse off. He also discusses the implications of independence for currency and banking, and Scottish membership of NATO and the EU.

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A Separate or United Kingdom: The context and consequences of the independence referendum

Our series on the Scottish referendum: things to keep in mind for tomorrow

In advance of the vote tomorrow, which will decide the fate of the three-centuries-old voluntary union between Scotland and England, the outcome is far from a foregone conclusion. The Politics in Spires blog series ‘A Separate or United Kingdom’ has attempted to contribute to an expanded discussion of the independence debate with voices from across the social sciences, including law, economics, sociology, psychology, human geography, political philosophy, and more.

Much of the popular discussion has centred on the fiscal and economic consequences of separation. Prof Simon Wren-Lewis agrees with the UK Treasury that in the next decade, at least, Scottish people ‘will be significantly better off by staying in the Union’.Wren-Lewis warns that independence would involve high set-up costs which would need to be funded in large part by an extremely volatile and diminishing source of revenue (oil). I would add that further complicating matters is the likelihood that Scotland’s credit rating would be lower than that of the United Kingdom, which would make it more expensive for the new government to borrow in order to provide an equivalent level of public services, a point made by Prof Iain McLean.

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A Separate or United Kingdom: The context and consequences of the independence referendum

Scotland: whoever wins, the public loses

The result of the referendum on 18 September is very uncertain, but its effects have already been felt. Whichever side wins, and whichever path the Scottish people chooses, the real loser of the long referendum campaign has been the quality of public debate, both in Scotland and south of the border. This is not meant as a trivial slight at any irrationality on the part of Scottish voters, or excessive rambunctiousness in the public demeanour of partisans of ‘Yes Scotland’ or ‘Better Together’. If anything, it is to be applauded that the debate has galvanised such high levels of engagement among the Scottish public, culminating in an expected turnout for the referendum of as much as 80%. Instead, it is more a comment that in the supposed contest between ‘head’ and ‘heart’ reasons for which way to vote, it has generally been the very worst aspects of both that have prevailed over their better, and more useful, fellow-arguments. The debate over Scotland’s future has, especially recently, served up the incongruous (and unromantic) image of a nation of ‘bean-counters’ basing its decision about independence on the expected profitability of either outcome, yet calculating this expectation (on either side) off the back of political and economic assumptions that resemble nothing so much as declarations of blind fear or faith.

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A Separate or United Kingdom: The context and consequences of the independence referendum

City-regional small nations beyond nation-states

With separate histories and political-cultural traditions, the UK and Spain do not have the same nation-state DNA. Yet both face issues over regional independence. While the UK Government has legitimised the Scottish Government and supported the Scottish Independence referendum as a highly democratic exercise, Spain stands out as remaining normatively inflexible without, so far, even contemplating any dialogue with the presidents of the Catalan and Basque Autonomies.

Other EU nation-states accept the UK’s approach to sort out regional and nationalistic claims democratically. But Spain has been avoiding the demands of the Catalan and Basque institutions and citizens on the basis of both historic and more recent episodes of political unrest. As a result, it seems impossible to open any discussion about the devolution claims of city-regional small nations, particularly in terms of devising an internal, alternative and re-scaled configuration of Spain as a nation-state, which would involve modifying the 1978 Constitution. In the case of the Basque Country, this is presented as the least likely outcome as political violence in the region has been both a major obstacle and also a source of inertia. Nevertheless, ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna)[1], announced a ‘definitive cessation’ of its campaign in 2011 and, therefore, should welcome any kind of democratic implementation that involves devolving powers to the Basque Country.

But are there any remarkable differences between EU nation-states such as the UK and Spain?

Indeed, I think there are plenty of them.

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A Separate or United Kingdom: The context and consequences of the independence referendum

(Under)taxation of North Sea Oil and Gas Production and its Implications for Scottish Independence

The Guardian newspaper recently published an article by Aditya Chakrabortty entitled ‘Dude, where’s my North Sea oil money?’ (13 January 2014), which drew a comparison between Norway and the UK in terms of what approximately four decades’ worth of fiscal income from oil and gas production has meant for each country. The main thrust of the article was to suggest that the reason why the UK does not have a colossal nest egg like Norway’s is that the UK government effectively squandered its windfall in tax breaks. That is true, but not in the way Chakrabortty thinks.

Starting in 1981, once the Falklands conflict (and the need to pay for it) was over, the UK government led by Margaret Thatcher embarked on a process (which accelerated greatly under John Major and even more so under the Blair-Brown Labour governments) of levying progressively less and less taxes on oil and gas exploration and production activities. In other words, Chakrabortty is right in saying that most of the windfall was squandered in tax breaks but, overwhelmingly, the main recipient of these tax breaks was the UK oil and gas industry. As oil prices have skyrocketed from 2000 onwards, the differences in the amounts that the UK levies compared to other large North Sea producers (and not only Norway) have reached astonishing proportions.

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A Separate or United Kingdom: The context and consequences of the independence referendum

What happens to Scotland’s Westminster MPs after a ‘yes’ vote?

On 25 March this year, a bill disenfranchising around 4 million people was introduced to Parliament. It barely received any press coverage, and though it was defeated it raised an important and oddly neglected constitutional question.

The bill in question was proposed by Tory John Stevenson, and asked “that leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 to disenfranchise all residents of Scotland eligible to vote in any United Kingdom General Election held after 18 September 2014 in the event of a positive vote in the Scottish Independence referendum; and for connected purposes.”[1] It attempts to solve an anomaly caused by the electoral calendar: Scotland votes on independence on 18 September this year, but would only become an independent nation some time in 2016 (the Scottish government is planning for 24 March[2]). In between those two dates, of course, the UK will hold a general election. Some Conservatives argue that Scots shouldn’t return MPs to Westminster in 2015 because most laws passed by the 2015 Parliament will not apply to Scotland. The problem is exacerbated by the Labour Party’s dominance in Scottish constituencies: 2015 could well see a Labour majority in Westminster and a Conservative majority in ‘rump UK’, i.e. the United Kingdom minus Scotland. In this situation – one of the most likely outcomes of the general election – by whom would Britain be governed?

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The misguided search for the political – Lois McNay

Max Muir speaks to Lois McNay, Professor of Political Theory at Oxford University and Fellow of Somerville College, about her new book, ‘The Misguided Search for the Political’. She argues that radical democratic theorists, in their search for the abstract essence of politics itself, have ushered in a dangerous silence on the lived experience of inequality and oppression. Without addressing the ‘social weightlessness’ of their theories, these radical democrats find their emancipatory credentials seriously undermined.

Max Muir: Hi Lois, thanks for chatting with us. Your new book is called ‘The Misguided Search for the Political’. Why exactly is that search misguided?

Lois McNay: The book is a reaction to something we’ve seen over the last twenty or thirty years in political theory, this preoccupation with constructing general models of democracy, or the dominance of what Agnes Heller terms ‘the sole and all-embracing concept of the political’.

Many of the problems we’re facing seem to demand, by way of effective normative response, unifying and universal democratic procedures and principles. At the same time, this preoccupation with general models of the political is supposed to be the most appropriate response to the depoliticising social tendencies unleashed by globalised neoliberalism. Now, while it’s important to identify the essential and abstract principles that should guide democratic practice, in my view there’s been a certain cost to this abstraction – or what in the book I call ‘social weightlessness’ – it shifts attention away from concrete issues of inequality and oppression.

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