News digest: Inequality, Brexit and dangerous dogs


Unsurprisingly, Brexit has dominated the news again this week as the legal challenge in the Supreme Court proceedings was heard, with the claimants arguing that a failure to consult Parliament on the triggering of Article 50 would see the 1972 European Communities Act – which prepared the way for the UK to join the EEC – would have a lesser status than the Dangerous Dogs Act.   Responding for the Government, James Eadie QC argued that rights granted by EU membership were granted “on the international plane” rather than through an Act of Parliament, and so a new Act was not required for Brexit.

While the exist mechanisms were being discussed in the Supreme Court, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has told the European Parliament’s chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt that the procedure would be “reversible” if there is “the political will”.

In a less direct but still much-discussed challenge to the future of the EU, the people of Italy last week voted against a series of constitutional reforms proposed by Matteo Renzi, who has since announced that he will resign as Prime Minister.   While the link may not be entirely obvious, the Financial Times argues that “Brexit and the Renzi resignation do form part of the same story. The European project is under unprecedented strain” with worries abound anti-EU sentiment in Italy seen as a greater challenge than in the UK due to their use of the single currency.

However, former chief economist at the Italian Treasury Lorenzo Codogno cautions that claims that Italians voted in the referendum as a proxy for their feelings on the EU are “nonsense”, going on to say “It was not about Europe and the protest was not about the EU, it was about the government.”

While constitutional change in Italy was soundly rejected, the prospect of further constitutional change in Scotland is never far from the agenda – and this week Labour leader Kezia Dugdale called for nothing less than a new Act of Union, which she argues is necessary to prevent independence in the aftermath of “the Tories’ reckless Brexit gamble”.  The Scottish Labour leader set out her vision for a “federal solution” for the United Kingdom and a “people’s constitutional convention to re-establish the UK for a new age” to a mixed response, winning the backing of senior figures like Gordon Brown, while being sharply criticised by commentators like Kenny Farquharson writing in the Times.

A slightly less mixed response greeted the DWP’s proposals to cut the number of Job Centres in Glasgow by half – including centres in areas like Easterhouse and Castlemilk – with the SNP’s Angus Robertson leading with the issue at this week’s session of Prime Minister’s Questions and a Daily Record editorial warning the Prime Minister to “prepare for a backlash”.

But the UK Government hasn’t been the only administration facing criticism this week – with the Scottish Government coming under fire over the publication of the Pisa scores, which saw Scotland record its worst ever performance in the international survey.  For the first time since the tests began, Scotland’s scores in maths, reading and science were classed as “average” – which Deputy First Minister John Swinney to highlight the need for radical reform to the education system.

Opposition parties attacked the Scottish Government’s record on education, with the Tories calling for a review of Curriculum for Excellence, leading to a wider debate on its future in Scotland’s schools – with Keith Topping, professor emeritus of education at the University of Dundee saying thatthe clock is ticking” on getting the policy right, while Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University asked “If Curriculum for Excellence is not the explanation of Scottish decline, then what is?”

Meanwhile a new report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown an increase of 1.1 million people in in-work poverty since 2010/11 – with 55 per cent of people in poverty from working families.

The growth in inequality demonstrated by the JRF report has motivated Professor Stephen Hawking to make a political intervention this week in the aftermath of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, pointing out that “we are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.”

Calling for people to work together to safeguard the future of the planet, Professor Hawking points out that humanity stands at the most dangerous moment in our development thus far – and urges political and academic elites “from Cambridge to Hollywood, to learn the lessons of the past year. To learn above all a measure of humility.”

And with President-Elect Donald Trump choosing “climate change denialist Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency in his new administration, Professor Hawking’s intervention looks particularly timely.