Friday, 7 December 2012

Do Scots Have An Identity And Is It Important?

In October I wrote a blog entitled "I Am Not A Nationalist - But" and did not expect to return to the topic so quickly, but Nicola Sturgeon's recent lecture, "Building a Better Nation" caused me to criticise her argument that, "the fact of  nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motor force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desireable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity." I disagree with her, said so and provoked a reaction from several SNP supporters, leading eventually to the usual accusations that my opposition to SNP policies is based solely on my animosity to the party per se. It is worthwhile re-examining the arguments because Nicola's speech has also been criticised by others, not least Brian Wilson, long-time opponent of Scottish Nationalism, although like so many others of a Unionist bent, a strong advocate of British Nationalism.

I made my position clear in October, not for the first time, but it will do no harm to do so again. I am a hard line, uncompromising Scottish Nationalist, who supports independence for its own sake. No matter how much I criticise the SNP policies, some of which I believe undermine independence, no matter what line is taken by pro-independence parties and the Yes Campaign, nothing will stop me voting Yes in the referendum. In his column in The Scotsman, the day following Nicola Sturgeon's speech, Brian Wilson wrote, "There are plenty who believe fairly and squarely in the cause of Scottish independence, without worrying about whether it is going to mean being better or worse off....the Ex-Faction want independence come hell or high water, for better or worse, richer or poorer. That is an honest and selfless political outlook" Of much more importance, it is a political stance for which the Unionists have no answer. When a Unionist tells me, "You will be worse off" and my response is, "So what, we can make it better," where do they go next?

Nicola claimed Neil MacCormick had divided Nationalists into two camps, the Existensialists and the Utilitarianists, the former in favour of independence for its own sake, while the latter favoured independence as a tool to create a better country. Nicola put herself in the Utilitarian section stating, "My conviction that Scotland should be independent, stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice." She went on to say, "I take it for granted  as a simple fact that Scotland is a nation with an inalienable right to self-determination". Most Unionists would also accept that as a matter of fact and the only difference between those on the self-styled Left in the Unionist camp and the Utilitarian strand of Scottish Nationalism, is that the Unionists see the best chance of Scotland becoming a "more prosperous and fairer country" is in being a part of the UK. They both have the same aim - a fair society - and neither acknowledges Scottish identity as being a factor in the creation of that society.

If, like Nicola Sturgeon and the leadership of the SNP, the reason for pursuing independence is based on the  belief that an independent Scotland has a better chance of being a better, fairer more prosperous country; that identity and nationality has nothing to do with it, it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask that, if the kind of country they seek could be achieved by continuing as a part of the UK, would they still be in favour of independence? It is also fair to ask, as I did and as Wilson did in his Scotsman piece, why stop at Scotland, why strive for fairness in just Scotland, when it might be achieved in the UK? Wilson put it slightly differently but was effectively asking the same question when he wrote, "I doubt if most Scots want to turn our backs on the needs of our counterparts in Newcastle or Liverpool, Corby or Cardiff." Those who responded to my tweet, asking that question, came up with some curious answers, more of which below.

In 1990, during the debates in the SNP about membership of the EEC, as it was then, my objections to membership were on the grounds of loss of sovereignty and my objections have not changed as the centralisation of power in the EU has increased greatly since 1990. In 1990 I wrote, "Sovereignty is a legal as well as a philisophical way of describing the right of a people to govern itself, to determine its own priorities within the constraints imposed by its external environment. Increased interdependence may change the balance of advantage and disadvantage in any "self-determined" act, but it cannot make the principle of self-determination or self-government superfluous. At any level of integration or interdependence, a community of people must ask itself how important it is to retain the right to make its own choices between the options with which they are faced." Since its commitment to the EU, the SNP has never asked the question.

One respondent to my question about creating the "fairer state" in the UK, claimed, "Who are these "Scots"? We have a diverse population", followed by, "There is no homogenous Scottish identity - countries don't have identity", then, "We have Asian Scots, Polish Scots, American Scots etc each with their own identity, but all Scots nonetheless". Just to round off the question of identity, "If folk want to keep a "British" identity then so be it. I've never felt British myself." I don't know what this kind of verbal gymnastics tells us about some of the people who will defend the SNP to the death but I have NEVER met anyone from another country, prepared to go to such lengths to deny they and their fellow nationals had an identity AND that it was important. I have discussed the politics of independence with any number of Europeans over the years and cannot imagine the Irish, Norwegians, Catalans, Basques et al claiming they had no identity and even if they did, it was not important to the question of their nation's independence. That argument would be treated with derision.

Even more ludicrous were the arguments advanced as to why the UK could not create this "fair society". The same tweeter offered this as a reason, "it is not a democratic arrangement and is corrupt beyond redemption" or alternatively, "the UK Government will never allow a fair society to exist". By far the mildest criticism of the UK was, "Scotland and the rUK have diverged socially and politically to such an extent that UK project no longer fulfils purpose." If Scotland and rUK have diverged socially and politically, might that not have something to do with the identity or character of the Scottish people? Is it just an accident that Scots place such store on equity, that the SNP's policies on free tuition fees, free prescriptions, bus passes and bridge tolls are applauded in Scotland and resented in England, where they have come under attack? At the same time, the SNP's policy of aiming to have corporation tax set at 12.5% is hardly going to create "fairness", as the Irish can testify.

Although Nicola Sturgeon's desire for independence is not driven by identity or nationality, she does acknowledge that Scots do have a distinctive identity. However, the main thrust of her argument for independence is contained in the following, "You cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the is only by bringing the powers home, by being independent, that we can build the nation we all want." I do not disagree with a word of that sentiment and it is why I am so critical of the SNP's policies on the EU and the currency. It also underlines the contradictory nature of the SNP's campaign and, Nicola's speech. One of my critics claimed, "You appear to have an "ultra" view which would reject independence other than on your own purist terms" and considers any debate on the EU, the euro or the currency as sterile, ignoring the fact that membership of the EU/Euro and retaining sterling, undermines the very independence he claims to want.

No matter how SNP supporters dress it up, membership of the EU will tie Scotland into another incorporating Union, something more and more people are coming to recognise. Just as Independence in Europe was an oxymoron, it is a nonsense to argue we should wait until we are "independent" before discussing the EU, when the SNP strains every sinew to persuade Scots they will be members of another Union, as soon as we leave the UK. When does their version of "independence" actually kick in? Similarly, retaining sterling will ensure we will not be in a position to "bring the powers home" to create the "fair society"  that is supposed to be the whole point of the independence the Utilitarians claim to pursue. By couching their stated aim of independence in terms of creating a "fair society", they leave themselves open to the kind of questions Wilson et al will continue to pose until 2014. They will have to do better than they have done to date.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

An Independent Scotland Does Have Alternatives

Blair Jenkins of the Yes Campaign has consistently emphasised that the Campaign does not speak for the SNP, nor does the SNP dictate to the Yes Campaign, in terms of what an independent Scotland will look like. The problem created by that approach - and it is difficult to know what other general approach the Yes Campaign can take - is that the public perception is that whatever policy position the SNP adopts, is assumed to be the definitive policy position that will apply in an independent Scotland. Thus, when the SNP claims an independent Scotland will continue with sterling as its preferred currency, that an independent Scotland will be granted automatic membership of the EU and, an independent Scotland will retain membership of NATO, but without nuclear weapons, the Scottish electorate assumes that will be the position of an independent Scotland. It is also assumed the Yes Campaign must endorse those policies as the Scottish public as yet, does not differentiate between the SNP and the Yes Campaign.

While it is perfectly understandable that the Yes Campaign will refuse to either endorse or reject SNP policies in the run-up to the referendum, it means the party is being given a free run to determine the nature of an independent Scotland. The Yes Campaign is not a political party, therefore it lacks not only the mechanisms to formulate policy, it lacks the legitimacy to speak for any section of the Scottish people on any policy position other than the demand for independence. As the largest political party, the most organised political party and the richest political party on the Yes side of the independence debate, as well as the small matter of forming the Scottish Government, the SNP is perceived by the Scottish electorate as the most likely political party to form the first Scottish government if the referendum returns a "Yes" vote. For those reasons, no other political party on the Yes side of the debate  is perceived to be able to offer any alternatives to the policies being offered by the SNP, although they are expected to campaign for independence as part of the overall campaign, subsuming their own agendas to that of the Yes Campaign until the referendum vote in 2014. The Greens have already found difficulty in accepting that subservient role and unless the tensions this creates are resolved, there is always a danger the Yes Campaign will be damaged.

The Yes Campaign may have to widen its role and, at least inform the Scottish people, that realistic alternatives do exist, to the policies being offered by the SNP. The Campaign need not compromise its position and endorse any alternative, but it could lend its weight to the argument that there are alternatives. Yes Campaign spokesmen have been questioned on those areas on which the SNP has been most vulnerable and their first, and indeed only response, has been to say they do not speak for the SNP, therefore they cannot answer the criticisms being made. The alternatives to the main areas of attack on the SNP, have been endorsed to some extent, by other political parties such as the Greens, the SSP or the SDA but as they are seen to be on the fringes of Scottish politics, despite the Greens being represented in the Scottish Parliament, their arguments are rarely given the exposure they sometimes deserve, by a Scottish media which has shown little interest in any arguments other than those made by the SNP and the other mainstream parties. Quite willingly therefore, the media colludes in the exclusion from the debate, of all arguments other than those made by the SNP on the Yes side, and the Unionists on the other. Any attempt by any of the minor parties on the Yes side, to offer different policies from those of the SNP, is immediately presented by the media and the Unionists, as "a split in the Yes Campaign" although any number of different positions on the Unionists side are accepted without comment, as part and parcel of normal political activity.

An "independent" Scotland post referendum, must be presented as some monolithic, body of political positions, and any suggestion of policy differences, is condemned as "weakness" or "leaps in the dark"; while the rUK, post referendum, must be accepted on the basis of "promised but unspecified reforms" which will "increase the power of the Scottish Parliament." The Liberals have even re-discovered federalism, which again the Scottish electorate is expected to endorse, without any explanation of how many assemblies/parliaments (if they were even acceptable) would be required to satisfy the electorate in England.
The SNP is being pursued relentlessly by the Unionists, on three of the most important issues in the debate on independence; the currency, the EU and NATO and the problems which the SNP is now having to confront, are largely of its own making, as it has attempted to slip them under the radar of the Unionist opposition by a combination of sophistry and dissembling. Each of the three issues is worthy of a separate blog and one will be provided, but a summary of the alternatives should be sufficient to highlight the need for the Yes Campaign to address the problems being created for the Independence cause, by Unionist attacks on SNP policies. The lack of acknowledgement of alternatives, by the SNP and the Scottish media, suggests that no alternatives exist, thereby increasing the pressure on the SNP which is forced to dissemble even more, as it attempts to relieve the pressure. The embarrassment of Alex Salmond could have been avoided if  he and the party had not taken such entrenched positions.

It is difficult to understand why the SNP and Alex Salmond have allowed themselves to be cornered and embarrassed to such an extent on the question of the currency. They have reacted as if the only alternative to the embattled euro, is to keep the pound sterling after Scotland becomes independent, pretending at first that all of the 67 currency arrangements in the world, were all the same as that which they initially proposed for an independent Scotland and the rUK. That position lasted all of 48 hours, before Alex Salmond changed his initial statement and since then, we have learned that the SNP now advocates a formal currency union, arguing that such an arrangement worked for both Eire and Australia in the early years following independence. That claim will be examined later but why would an independent Scotland allow London and the Bank of England to control the Scottish economy, when an independent Scotland could launch its own Scottish currency and avoid that external control? Gavin McCrone has already backed that alternative but the SNP has yet to say why it prefers sterling to a Scottish currency, when the party has campaigned for years against the Bank of England setting interest rates for the UK, in order to suit the South East of England. The Scottish people are at least entitled to know such an alternative has been favoured by other newly independent countries in Europe, and why it is deemed to be unsuitable for an independent Scotland.

Alex Salmond and the SNP have taken an equally inexplicable position on the EU, leading to the First Minister being called "a bare-faced liar". Those who have assumed the SNP had taken legal advice on the question of an independent Scotland's position on EU membership, included a great many people who took more than just a passing interest in politics. They accepted what they believed were repeated claims by Alex Salmond and other SNP spokespeople, that the claim that an independent Scotland would automatically be accepted as a successor state in the EU, was at least based on something more than just some academic's "opinion". As the position of an independent Scotland has been debated back and forth in recent weeks, by those with different opinions and different political axes to grind, so the embarrassment of the First Minister and the SNP has increased accordingly. The political fallout of this embarrassment has yet to be calculated, let alone felt, and opinion polls have yet to record significant falls in support for independence but why would the SNP continue to take such a political stance, when it is so unnecessary?

 Why should Scotland be subjected to repeated threats of being isolated, forced to join the euro, forced to erect border controls, refused entry to the EU and every possible combination of obstacles known to man, when we could tell the EU politely, to keep its membership and stuff it. We could deny ourselves the pleasure of having our agriculture controlled by Brussels, our fishing grounds plundered by Spaniards, our trade determined by the Common External Tariff and all the many impositions of the undemocratic, centralised and corrupt EU by refusing to join and join the EEA and EFTA instead. Why would we want to be a part of an organisation that is so corrupt that its own auditors have refused to certify its accounts for fourteen consecutive years because on average, £6 billion per annum cannot be accounted for? We are Net contributers to this corrupt organisation and we have a balance of payments deficit with it. The figures for Scotland are unclear but the figure for the UK is £50 billion in 2010/11. A referendum on EU entry would show how much Scots really hanker after continued EU membership.

The third and final policy embarrassment the SNP has created, is the reversal of the party's long commitment to come out of NATO and demand the removal of nuclear weapons from the Clyde. The party decided to retain membership of NATO but only on condition that it removed the nuclear weapons and Trident submarines from the Clyde. The usual arguments were used to persuade the party members to reverse the party's policy, arguments more commonly made by Unionists when arguing against independence. If the members were not in favour of NATO, they were isolationists, lived in a dream world and were turning their backs on their allies in the rest of Europe. It was vitally important they let our allies see we could be relied upon for collective defence and join them in an alliance which had as its main policy a commitment to a first strike nuclear provision. It seemed to matter little that, with the exception of France, none of those allies  whom the members were asked to re-assure, actually had or stored nuclear weapons of their own. Only Scotland, with its 5 million of a population, was required to play host to these weapons of mass destruction. This is the most difficult policy to which an alternative can be offered which is not a complete reversal but the notion that the nuclear submarines on the Clyde will be easily removed is already being questioned. As always, there are threats of job losses as if 8,000 jobs are any kind of justification for the manufacture and store of such hideous weapons. In any case, the savings of £1.5 billion on defence every year, can go a long way to creating alternative employment.

If the Yes Campaign is serious about presenting a positive alternative to the negativity of the Unionist No Campaign, it should at least give some consideration to presenting alternatives to the Scottish people, to the policies being offered by the SNP. The Campaign carries more weight than the smaller political parties in its ranks with the exception of the Greens, but it may find it increasingly difficult to continue to argue persuasively that it is not simply the SNP's mouthpiece as the polling day gets closer. It may help to suggest that alternatives do exist and that the SNP is not the only show in town.

Monday, 22 October 2012

I am Not a Nationalist - BUT

Chambers dictionary defines a nationalist as, "one who favours or strives after the unity, independence, interests or domination of a nation; a member of a political party specially so called." It is frequently seen as something unsavoury and chauvinism, imperialism even racism are often used as synonyms. There are different theories of when Nationalism became a potent political force, with some political scientists claiming it is a modern concept, pointing to the unification movements in Europe as evidence of same. It is true that Germany and Italy only became nation states in 1870 under the leadership of Bismarck and Prussia and Cavour and Garibaldi respectively, but Scots had achieved their independence as a nation and had established the nation state, with national territorial boundaries very close to those we have today, with the Treaty of Northampton in 1329. The Czech people lost their independence when their Bohemian state was defeated at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, but they had occupied that territory from the 9th century. They regained it in part, when Czechoslovakia was formed in the aftermath of the first World War in 1918 but it was not until 1993 that the country we know as the Czech Republic was formed.

For a great many people in Europe, Scots among them, their Nationalism has been expressed in fighting for their freedom or against the attacks of more powerful neighbours. The Polish people saw their territory increasingly annexed by Prussia, Austria and Russia during the Polish Partitions 1772, 1793 and 1795 when the Polish state disappeared completely. The Duchy of Warsaw, created by Napoleon, saw a part of that territory restored but it was not until 1918 that the Republic of Poland was reestablished, only for the territory to be occupied again by Germany and Russia in 1939. Despite fighting on the side of the Allies during WWII, the Polish people were again betrayed, placed under the control of the Soviet Union and not until the fall of Communism in the 1980s, were they finally independent. Thus English, German and Russian Nationalism has taken a different form from that of Scots, Czechs and Poles and while Scottish nationalism is condemned as narrow isolationism, despite the long history of Scottish involvement with Europe, British Nationalism is lauded and applauded as something noble, to be celebrated in extravaganzas such as the London Olympics. The annexation of almost half the world by Britain during the days of Empire, aided and abetted by Scots, is still seen as a power for good, as if it happened in a fit of absentmindedness.

I have never had any qualms about saying I am a Nationalist and until Scotland retains its independence, I will continue to be a Nationalist. My Nationalism is not expressed in the desire to annex anyone else's territory, it is concerned only to see the nation of Scotland restored as an independent nation state and extends no further than that. I will still be a Nationalist after that because I will continue to want to protect the interests of Scotland and the Scottish people, as we re-establish ourselves on the world stage, participating in those alliances which seek to protect and nurture the interests of other people  and nations throughout the world, at the same time, creating a decent society within our own borders. To my mind therefore, there is nothing to be ashamed of in being a Nationalist, it is simply an expression of the love I have for the country called Scotland and a deep desire to see the best outcome in all things, for the Scottish people. The question I often pose to those who condemn Scottish Nationalism is, "Why is that so wrong, when British Nationalism, with all of its imperialist connotations, is considered to be so right?" I have yet to be given the answer.

Scottish Nationalism has never been based on antipathy to other people and about the only concession that Unionists are prepared to make to the Nationalist movement in Scotland, is that it has never been based on ethnicity or any hint of racism. That is not to say there are no racists in Scotland, of course there are just as there are racists in every society, but racism has never been one of the pillars on which Scottish Nationalism has been built. There is an undoubted antipathy to England, which boils over occasionally to antipathy to English people, but that is a manifestation of the troubled history we share and the years of fighting against English aggression. It is also a reaction to the condescension with which England treats Scotland and the manner in which the case for Unionism is made. Our two peoples may share a history, just as we share a history with our European neighbours, but it is not the same history, any more than our two peoples have the same language, culture or social mores. The history, languages, mores and culture of the Scottish people are what make us Scots and differentiate us from our English neighbours. They are what make the Scottish nation. Much of that culture, including the languages, both Scots and Gaelic, the poetry of Burns, Ferguson and McLean are frequently treated with derision by the English establishment, despite the part played by Scots in the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries. These are the things which Scottish Nationalism seeks to defend and promote, in the face of continuing animosity from England. At no time has the Scottish elite sought to reciprocate and treat English language and attitudes with the same animosity and derision.

The political Left in both Scotland and England have tried for years to argue the case for the Union, in terms of the solidarity of the working classes in both countries. One English commentator recently argued that "A Scottish worker in a supermarket has more in common with an English worker in a supermarket, than with the landed gentry in Scotland." That argument has been made for generations and used to be couched in the following terms, "A Scottish miner/steel worker, has more in common with an English miner/steel worker etc. etc." Unfortunately for the Unionist Left, successive Westminster Governments closed the Scottish pits and steel works, leaving them to scrabble around for a similar comparison. The actions of successive Westminster Governments, in closing Scottish pits and steel works, as well as so many other Scottish companies and institutions, forced many on the Left in Scottish politics to re-examine their previous loyalties and come to the conclusion that Scottish independence offered more by way of opportunities to build the kind of country they preferred, than continuing loyalty to the Union with England.

Thus Dennis Canavan stated twice, at the Yes rally in Edinburgh, "I am not a Nationalist". He repeated it on the Sunday Politics programme the following day. Colin Fox has made the same claim, despite both serving on the Executive Committee of the Yes Campaign, and Tommy Sheridan, a recent convert to Scottish independence, like Jim Sillars, and so many recruits to the SNP over the years, cut his political teeth in the Labour Party in Scotland. I have to wonder if the Labour Party in Scotland had been prepared to accept Dennis Canavan as one of their candidates for the Scottish Parliament instead of de-selecting him, would he now be campaigning for independence? Canavan like others on the Left, claimed he was "an internationalist" as if that and Nationalism are mutually exclusive. It may simply be semantics but how do those who proclaim their internationalism so loudly, think there can be internationalism without nations or the pursuit of national interests? What is it about Scottish Nationalism that they find so unacceptable, given that they will acknowledge it is not based on ethnicity and has no aspirations to annex anyone else's territory?

I, in common with many other traditional Nationalists, want independence for its own sake because I believe Scots are different, are distinctive, have their own culture, are a nation and, that Nationalism is about dignity, self-respect and self-confidence. I see the function of Nationalists as persuading Scots to have a much stronger belief in their own self-worth. The country that may arise from the political deliberations and the referendum in 2014, may not be the kind of country I will want but that will not stop me seeking independence. Nicola Sturgeon has stated that she does not want an independent Scotland for "its own sake" as she has a notion of the kind of country she wants to see. That is slightly different from those who arrived at the point, where Scottish independence is their preference because, having failed to persuade Britain to produce the kind of country they want, they see an independent Scotland as the only alternative. When I sat on the Selection Committee of the SNP - the committee which interviewed prospective candidates for the candidates' list - I always asked the same question of those who proclaimed their Nationalism in terms of economics, "If you could be fairly certain that Scotland would be poorer if it became independent, would you still be a Nationalist. Would you still want independence?" The answers were frequently quite illuminating and several of the current SNP leadership are self-confessed economic Nationalists.

 Does that make economic change more important than independence? For many Scots, that is the case and, if the economic reforms and change they seek could be achieved by some other method or alliance, many of them would sacrifice independence. Those who were present in the SNP during the early debates on the EEC, now the EU, will remember the importance placed on the supposed economic benefits Scotland would accrue by joining the EEC. Sovereignty was not a consideration for the EEC supporters; they dismissed any suggestion that Scotland would lose control over so many areas of its economic and social legislation, concentrating on the assumed economic benefits arguments, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Today, those same people argue that they have changed their stance because the EU has changed and "when the facts change, they change their minds." It is true that the EU has changed over the years, as centralisation has been increased and the Euro launched; but those changes were planned over 50 years ago and the plans have not changed. Those of us who placed more importance on the loss of sovereignty or independence, rather than assumed economic benefits, have unfortunately had to watch our predictions about the EU come true as the whole EU policy of the SNP has unraveled.

People will support the idea of Scottish independence for different reasons, that  much has been made clear by successive polls. Not everyone who claims to support independence just now, can be relied upon to support it if their reason for supporting it can be achieved in other ways or circumstances change. The most recent poll suggests that 52% of Scots would vote for independence if there was a serious prospect of the Con/Lib Coalition being re-elected. How many of them would be left if they thought Labour would be elected? Others have said that as little as £500 per annum would be enough to get them to change their minds. The SNP has just dropped its long-standing opposition to NATO membership because an opinion poll claims that 72% of Scots are in favour of NATO membership. What happens if their opinion changes or NATO becomes involved in another illegal war? Are we seriously being asked to believe that NATO will pack up Trident and vacate the Clyde?

Where the Unionists are absolutely correct is when they say that Independence is not just for Christmas and Nationalists would not be so willing to say "How High?" every time some focus group or opinion poll cries "Jump", if support for independence was based on something much more solid and principled than whether or not the Tories are re-elected in England. The Yes Campaign has much to do in the next few months and arguing from a point of principle might be a good place to start.


Sunday, 14 October 2012

England Will Expect - Better Believe It

Johann Lamont has been a surprise to more than a few political commentators since her elevation to the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party. She has performed better than expected in the Scottish Parliament and has been praised for her courage in raising the issue of universal benefits. Where she has provided absolutely no surprises is in her determination to save the Union. Not only has she shown- as if there was ever any doubt-that Labour in Scotland will dismantle the welfare state in Scotland, allying itself with the Tories, but they will even adopt the old Tory tactic of promising a "better tomorrow" if Scots will only vote to remain a dependency of England. Johann Lamont has set up "A Commission" which, it is claimed, will report  the Labour Party's preferences and policy for increased Devolution, or Devolution Plus, in time for Scots to make a choice between that and independence before they vote in the referendum in 2014.

The first and most important point, of which Scots should be made aware from the outset, is that it will not matter a toss what the Labour Party in Scotland proposes. Nothing will be decided about any change in the constitution, until the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland have their say. Any change in the degree of devolution which will be granted to the Scottish people, will be a question for the whole of the United Kingdom. If it is even hinted that whatever the Labour Party proposes, is likely to become law, it must be knocked on the head because no changes in the constitution, other than Scottish independence, can be decided by the Scots on their own. We need not only the agreement but the permission, of the rest of the UK and the Westminster Parliament, to increase the powers of the devolution settlement. It should also be remembered there will be Westminster elections in 2016, therefore we have no idea which party will form the government or what issues will dominate their priorities. I think it is safe to assume that increasing the powers of the Scottish (and Welsh & Northern Irish parliaments) will not be one of them. We need no one's permission to be independent. The act of transferring sovereignty from the parliament of the UK to the parliament of an independent Scotland, will be the subject of discussion, but only in the sense of timescale or practicalities, never the decision itself. That is for Scots and Scots alone, to decide.

What kind of increased powers are Labour likely to suggest and, more importantly, what would be acceptable to the Westminster Parliament? Advocates of Devo-Plus have been unclear about the changes they would propose, beyond saying that power over all taxation and welfare payments would be a must. The SNP's Fiscal Autonomy would have met the demand for control of taxation, including the level of corporation tax applied in Scotland and complete control of the oil revenues. The Calman Commission decided that a form of half-way house would satisfy the demands for more powers in Scotland and suggested that Scotland should be made responsible for raising up to 35% of the Scottish budget, as opposed to the 15% for which it currently has responsibility, but the SNP quite rightly, pointed out that the measures did not go nearly far enough. When two bodies start from entirely opposite ends of the argument, it is hardly likely that any kind of half-way house is going to satisfy those whose aim is to wrest total control from the centre. Calman believed that the division of powers between Scotland and Westminster were "broadly right" therefore was never likely to offer anything that would undermine the status quo.

Alistair Darling, who heads up the No Campaign, has consistently argued that the SNP decision to keep the pound sterling after independence and to have the Bank of England as the lender of last resort, would mean that an "independent" Scotland would have little or no control over its economy. He points to the major crisis currently facing the Euro-zone and points to the fact that the single currency cannot work without centralised control over the tax and spending powers of the member states, so that monetary and fiscal policy can be made to complement each other, rather than be allowed to drift in opposite directions, as has been the case since the launch of the single currency. He argues that the Bank of England would require that kind of control over Scottish taxation, in order to avoid the kind of problems which have taken place in the Euro-zone. I agree with that criticism, which is why I have just as consistently argued in favour of a Scottish currency and a Scottish central bank but John Swinney, initially agreed that a Scottish Treasury would be prepared to offer the Bank of England assurances that Scotland would run a fiscal policy which would be acceptable to the Bank, thereby acknowledging Darling's criticisms as valid. More recently, Alex Salmond informed an American audience that he saw no reason for a fiscal stability pact with the rest of the UK, which directly contradicts Swinney and leaves Scots in a position where they have no idea what the SNP now offers.

One of the strongest arguments the SNP made, in its demands for Fiscal Autonomy, was that Scotland could then set its own corporation tax rates and like Eire, act as a magnet for inward investment. There are serious disadvantages with that policy, not least of which is the revenue gap that would have to be filled if large companies were to be attracted to Scotland on the basis of low corporation tax. It has been argued that the total revenue take would increase as a consequence of increased overall activity, the same claim that is made for a flat rate tax system, but not all members of the SNP agreed, with one of the fiercest crtics of such a system being the late Stephen Maxwell. The notion of Scotland, inside the Union but with Fiscal Autonomy, being allowed to operate such a tax regime, is quite risible for the very obvious reason that other areas of England which would be seriously disadvantaged, would never agree. Swinney's statement to the Bank of England, was a recognition of this, if Scotland continues with sterling as its currency but Salmond's latest comments have now thrown the whole debate wide open again. Unfortunately, the advocates of Devo-Plus have also relied heavily on the argument that Scotland should be given more control over taxation and oil revenues, at a time when the example of the crisis in the Euro-zone is encouraging greater fiscal centralisation.

Calman's proposals were agreed by all of the Unionist parties and stopped well short of Fiscal Autonomy. Without even mentioning the term, Darling has already made the case against it by pointing to the debacle in the Euro-zone and arguing that the Bank of England would not allow that level of fiscal freedom to operate inside the UK. Having had a ceiling placed on the degree of control that would be acceptable to the politicians at Westminster, Johann Lamont has had her limits set for her before her Commission has had its first meeting. No matter how it will be dressed up, whatever proposals are made by the Commission, will fall well short of what is looked for by those who advocate Devo-Plus, if by that is meant control over taxation. Whether or not Lamont is sincere in her efforts to meet the demands for greater powers in Scotland, she will be hard pushed to persuade the electorate that her Commission is anything other than a cynical attempt to undermine a Yes vote at the referendum. She has promised the proposals will be before the Scottish electorate in time for them to consider them before having to make a decision on the referendum, but anyone with even a passing interest in politics in Scotland, will be in little doubt that whatever is offered will fall well short of offering Scots any meaningful increase in control over their own affairs.

As there is to be no second question on the ballot paper, the Scots have a very straightforward choice. They can choose to be independent with all that that means in terms of opportunity to build the kind of country we want, cementing the kind of international relationships we want, promoting the kind of society we favour with full control over our many resources. They can have that or the Union, a Union dominated by the English electorate for no other reason than that there are more of them. It will be a Union that will continue to be defined by their priorities because that is the kind of Union they prefer. Scots have shown it is not the kind of society which satisfies our priorities but unless we fall in line, we are ridiculed and parodied as subsidy junkies, content to live off English largesse. A No vote in the referendum will see those priorities ignored and set aside because it will be what England expects. Anyone who thinks that will not be the case, should ask Johann Lamont and Scottish Labour.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Politics And Opportunity Cost

I have spent a life time arguing for the end of the Treaty of Union of 1707, for the return of sovereignty to the Scottish people; in short, for Scottish independence. Like the vast majority of Scottish Nationalists of my generation and those who came before, there were always a number of different reasons for our desire to see Scotland sever the Union with England but economics was never the main or the most important factor. We could always argue the economic case if required to do so but generally, it would be in response to economic questions which had been raised by those of our fellow Scots, who were either luke-warm to the idea of independence or openly hostile. Circumstances dictated the type and substance of the political debates of that era, that is, prior to the discovery of oil in the Scottish sector of the North Sea. The Nationalist case would always include an element of economic argument, inevitable in any discussion about the future of any country, but our desire for independence was never predicated on whether or not we would be economically better or worse off. In fact, I know of no other independence movement anywhere else in the world, where the economic argument has played such a prominent part.

Unfortunately the SNP was forced/persuaded to make the economic case occupy centre stage, after the discovery of oil, and no other issue has been the subject of so much inaccurate analysis, propaganda, half-truths and outright misinformation and lies. We are hardly into the campaign for the vote on the referendum on independence, to be held in 2014, but hardly a day goes by without some prominent politician on either side of the debate, issuing some statement either in favour or in opposition to independence, which is quite clearly a collection of half-truths or out and out lies. Assertions are trotted out without even a modicum of evidence, some of which would stretch the credulity of a ten-year-old. Both sides are equally guilty and Scots are being forced to wonder if the speaker actually understands what they have just said. Given the level of intelligence of some of the people involved, intelligence which has been tested in other ways and in other fields, it is difficult not to conclude that the speaker is bound to understand what has just been said. As some of the statements are so obviously untrue or, are shown very quickly to be untrue, the only other conclusion we are forced to come to is that both sides are setting out to deliberately mislead.

One of the very first lessons for anyone who takes economics as a school subject, is the relationship between resources and scarcity, the allocation of resources and the concept of opportunity cost. Even the most befuddled drunk, digging deep into his pockets in the hope of finding enough change for one last pint, knows that the same pound can't be spent twice on different drinks. He can have either another pint or...? Every housewife, every parent, soon learns that income can go only so far and the opportunity cost of new school uniforms can be the school trip perhaps, or some item of household equipment. Everyone learns very quickly that the opportunity cost of spending time on one activity, is the time that might have been spent on another activity. In other words, it is no more than common sense that resources, of whatever kind, are limited and many of them have alternative uses.

Johann Lamont has been both lauded and derided in equal measure, for her speech calling for the end of universal benefits. Her call for a re-examination of the Scottish government's priorities and her reference to the "something for nothing society" was bad politics and she provided an easy target for Nicola Sturgeon. It was not even good economics because her assumption was that Scotland could not afford the benefits which are currently on offer. The only time such an assertion would be true, would be if Scotland did not have the resources to pay for the benefits in absolute terms, nor the ability to borrow in order to pay for the benefits. Neither situation is true. A nation's willingness to allocate resources in such a manner that those least able to look after themselves, the very young, the old and weak, the ill, the disadvantaged, is what defines the nature of that nation. If Scots choose to allocate its resources so that the least able in our society are cared for, that is no one's business other than our own. Scots have been accused of trying to provide Scandinavian benefits on the back of American taxation.

When Nicola Sturgeon asked Labour MSPs to raise their hands if they wanted to remove free bus travel or free prescriptions, she was touching a chord in those in the Labour ranks who could still remember when the Labour Party actually believed in such things. When free prescriptions were introduced in Scotland, Jackie Baillie, Labour's then health spokesperson supported the measure, which had been in place in Wales since 2007 and was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2010. England is therefore out of step with the rest of the UK & Northern Ireland and they would be better to address their own situation, rather than spend time worrying about what the rest of the UK does. There is no doubt that universal benefits, both in economic and political terms,  needs to be addressed. When free care was introduced in 2003-04 it cost £86 million and has risen to £108 million in 2010-11. Free prescriptions cost £57 million, home care cost £133 million in 2003-04 and £342 million in 2010-11. Free travel cost £173 million in 2006-07 and £199 million in 2010-11 but is estimated to rise to £537 million by 2025. That last figure is being used to frighten the horses and is based on assumed annual increases of 6% every year until 2025, therefore may never happen. The travel system also costs £42 million to administer but that figure could be reduced if an alternative system is introduced.

The English media and Unionists in Scotland - in other words the Tory, Labour and Lib/Dem political parties and their supporters - far too readily assume Scotland is the most naturally impoverished part of the UK and, if it were not for the largesse emanating from England, we could not possibly enjoy the standard of living we do. Ruth Davidson is only the most recent Tory politician to produce figures to show how much Scots depend on English subsidies. The fact she is talking tosh, has been shown to be talking tosh, admitted by even her own party members, will be largely ignored by the Unionist press as they move to the next smear. Davidson should be made to either justify her claims or apologise but I expect neither to happen. The latest figures for taxation in Scotland, show that Scotland produces an excess of £2.7 billion per annum over the amount spent by government, in Scotland or on behalf of Scotland. The current total spend on the universal benefits that Lamont et al claim we cannot afford is £742 million therefore it is hardly rocket science to determine that we can afford the benefits in terms of simple arithmetic. That situation could be improved more in an independent Scotland if we decide to cut back on defence spending and tailor our defence budget to meet our ambitions.

The problem that Unionists like Johann Lamont have is that the Union means more to them than whether or not Scotland can afford the benefits we choose to give. The argument that it is ludicrous that millionaires are entitled to free care or free travel, totally ignores the reality that they would be hard pushed to find a millionaire who has a bus pass or who would choose to spend their last days in a care home where they would be drawing their free personal care. The Union is at stake here and just as the Euro fanatics will force the Greeks, Spaniards, Irish and Portuguese to suffer any level of austerity in order to save the European dream, so Unionists in Scotland will use every spurious economic and political argument to preserve the Union with England and the rest of the UK. None of the economic arguments that Davidson and Lamont use, take any account of the potential of an independent Scotland with control, complete control, of its own resources. A look at what Norway has done with its oil should tell every Scot just how much they have missed because they chose to believe the lies told by successive UK governments. Is there any reason to believe their successors are telling the truth now? The McCrone Report should be compulsory reading for every Scot because they would then see that the gulf between what UK Governments told them and the reality of the resources they could have had, would have made an independent Scotland one of the richest in the world.

So, the argument is about politics, it is not about economics. We could wipe the slate clean and abolish taxation completely, thereby absolving government of any responsibility for providing any kind of service to the nation. That is a ludicrous argument but when politicians start to unravel the state, we are dealing with matters of degree, not of principle. The Coalition has already cut £billions from the public sector, plan to cut another £10 billion and Ed Balls refuses to commit the Labour Party to reverse them. It is accepted that one of the first duties of government is to protect its population, therefore defence of the realm is a must and has to be paid for, and although there is no comparison with the level of UK involvement in world affairs now and in the days of empire, our presence in Afghanistan is testimony to government ambitions that greatly outstrip our resources. Thatcher and her colleagues decided that any kind of state involvement was anathema and privatised just about everything in sight. Are the railways being run either more cheaply or more efficiently now, than when it was British Rail? Would the politicians who get so exercised about millionaires being entitled to free care or free prescriptions, be willing to have a top rate of tax of 50% or 55% so that those self-same millionaires would pay through the tax system? Of course, we would have to ensure that they actually paid the tax and could not take advantage of the various advoidance schemes which have been allowed to proliferate, for the benefit of BBC employees and footballers. How many of them would have the courage to suggest it or would the threat of all the millionaires threatening to flee the country be too much for them?

No matter what choices are made, there will be an opportunity cost. What is important is the nature of the choice AND the opportunity cost. Hands up those (few?) Labour MSPs who would be quite happy if the opportunity cost of providing universal benefits was Trident and the war in Afghanistan?

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Was Hillsborough A One-Off?

David Cameron has taken much credit for the tone in which he delivered his apology in the House of Commons, to the families of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Commentators have said that not only was Cameron's tone "just right", but that the way in which it was received in the House did credit to the MPs, as they made known their outrage at the hypocrisy and mendacity of the South Yorkshire Police, who were in charge of crowd control at the time. The media in general has howled its outrage, while The Sun has been shown up as the rag it has always been. After 23 years, the families of the deceased have been vindicated, having fought a lonely battle throughout that period, in order to clear the names of not only their own lost relatives, but of Liverpool FC fans in general. Since the disaster, the families of the deceased have had to run the gauntlet of abuse normally reserved for those who are prepared to fight their corner and face up to the establishment. They have been accused of vindictiveness, of being bitter and twisted, only interested in compensation, as those with most to hide, used every avenue open to them to smear the reputations of those who had already lost those dearest to them, and who were already suffering a pain which no amount of compensation would assuage.

I have no intention of re-visiting the events of Hillsborough as they have been well aired since the publication of the report which damned those responsible. I am more concerned to comment on the culture in this country, which allowed it to happen, and to ask why it has taken 23 years to get to the truth. On the radio programme, "Call Kaye" on Wednesday morning, one guest on the programme was a serving policeman, who was at pains to counter the claim, made by another caller, that police cover-up is the norm in the UK. He expressed his own sense of shame that what had happened had been the consequence of police mendacity and was quite adamant that the guilty parties should now be prosecuted. He was equally adamant that what had happened was the exception rather than the rule. I would beg to differ.

The irony, which seems to have been overlooked by the bulk of the media, is that Cameron's audience in the first instance, the Honourable Members of the House of Commons, included some of the biggest hypocrites, chancers and liars in the country. How many of those who shouted their outrage the loudest, were guilty of fiddling their expences and flipping their houses the most often? How many of them like David Laws, lied about their expenses claims and made thousands of pounds from the taxpayer? Laws has just been brought back into government by David Cameron, as a Minister of State in the Department of Education, therefore despite being "gui;ty of at least six breaches of the rules over a considerable period of time", (theft in anybody else's language) according to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, he is still eligible to serve as a government minister. Alistair Darling "flipped" his house four times in four years in order to claim expenses on two houses at the same time, claiming, "it was all done according to House of Commons rules". Public contempt for their actions and for MPs as a class, has been increased by the fact that a handful of some of the least well known Members were successfully prosecuted, as a sop to public outrage, while the biggest offenders such as Darling, Laws or Jacqui Smith were never even charged.

There have been a large number of miscarriages of justice in the UK, over a long number of years, and many of them have involved police lying, not only in order to get the original conviction of those accused, but in order to cover up their mendacity. There can be very few who have not heard of the tragedy of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, ten people whose lives were totally destroyed by the falsification of evidence to get convictions. The accused men in the Birmingham case in 1974, were subjected to regular beatings, both while in the custody of the police and while on remand. They were deprived of food and sleep and subjected to the kind of treatment normally associated with prisoners in the hands of the state police in totalitarian regimes, not a modern, democratic and civilised state like the UK. A total of fourteen prison officers were charged with assault but aquitted. In 1977, the Six brought civil claims against the West Midland Police Serious Crime Squad (later disbanded for regular falsification of evidence) but the case was struck out by Lord Denning. Police Superintendent George Reade and two officers where charged with perverting the course of justice but never prosecuted, therefore although the Six received compensation, no one ever paid any penalty for the injustice to which they were subjected and the sixteen years they spent behind bars.

The Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven are perhaps less well known cases but are almost mirror images of the Birmingham Six case. A total of eleven people, one a seventeen year old girl and another a fourteen year old boy, served up to fifteen years in prison, after having had confessions beaten out of them and police evidence, later shown to have been falsified, which should have been thrown out at trial. Despite a recognition that the police evidence was corrupt and despite a public acknowledgement of same by both Douglas Hurd and Tony Blair, together with a public apology from the latter, no public official was ever prosecuted. The case of Harry Stanley in 2005, shocked the country when it learned that Mr Stanley was shot in the head by officers from the Metropolitan Police who had been told that "a man carrying a shotgun in a blue plastic bag" had just left a public house. Eyewitness accounts said Stanley was not looking at the police when he was shot, although the police testified he was pointing the parcel at them as if it was a shotgun. The parcel contained a chair leg. In July of the same year, Metropolitan police also shot Jean Charles de Menezes, mistaking him for a terrrorist. Again, police statements differed radically from eye witness accounts of both the behaviour and demeanor of Menezes, who was shot in the head seven times, while being held face down and helpless. In both cases, juries were instructed at the following inquests that they could not bring in verdicts of "unlawful killing".

Scotland has had its own miscarriages, some better known and "celebrated" than others, with that of Oscar Slater being perhaps the most celebrated of all despite having taken place in 1909. From the outset, it was recognised that Slater's conviction for murder was unsafe and his initial death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but even that did not end the disquiet and at a secret inquiry in 1914, detective John Trench revealed evidence that had previously been witheld. Trench was sacked, discredited and framed by his own force but he had taken documents from the original inquiry which his widow passed to Conan Doyle in 1919 after Trench's death. Slater was eventually released in 1927 with compensation of £6,000 but his name was never properly cleared. More recent cases are those of Paddy Meehan, who served seven years for a murder he did not commit, in 1969, before later being pardoned, and Shirley McKie, who was falsely accused of having a part in a murder in 1997, which was being investigated by the police force in which she served as a Detective Constable. Amid charges of police attempts to smear her, McKie was charged with perjury and acquitted in 1999 but then sued the Scottish Executive. On the morning the case was to be heard in 2003, she was offered and accepted damages of £750,000 and the case was dropped.

All of the above - by no means a complete list - involved cases where police were either shown to have lied or were accused of lying but the police are only one part of the establishment which have been responsible for miscarriages of justice or false accusations. In the area of child protection, the UK is second only to the USA, in the number of false accusations and miscarriages of justice, where the medical profession and social work departments have been prepared to lie, not simply to cover their own negligence or stupidity but to gain convictions of completely innocent parties. The cases of Angela Canning, Sally Clark and Trupti Patel are well known for the mistakes of the "experts" Southall and Meadows, and then the attempted cover-up of those mistakes by the authorities. Cleveland and Nottingham are places which became notorious for the hysteria created by "experts" who saw sexual and child abuse in every home and school in the two counties. By far the worst case, however, of official hysteria and mendacity took place at Shieldfield in Newcastle in 1994. Two nursery nurses, Dawn Reid and Christopher Lillie were cleared by a court of child sexual abuse, the judge throwing out the case on the morning of the first day of the trial, stating that the case should never have been brought to court. That did not satisfy the nurses employers, Newcastle Council, which set up its own inquiry and a report was issued in 1998, which condemned the two young nurses as child abusers of the worst kind.

Both were forced to leave Newcastle, quite literally in fear of their lives, such was the hysteria created by the report, backed by such luminaries as Esther Rantzen and Bea Campbell, who claimed over 350 children had been subjected to the most horrific abuse and sold to a paedophile ring. Ever ready with a headline, The Sun, under the banner, "Help Us Find Those Fiends" offered a cash reward to anyone who could tell them where the nurses were located. Reid and Lillie successfully sued Newcastle County and were awarded the maximum £200,000 each, despite the efforts of the social workers and the psychologist who compiled the report, to manipulate the words of children, some as young as three years of age. The presiding judge was so concerned about the conduct of one "expert witness" Dr San Lazaro, that he reported her to the GMC with a recommendation that they examine her fitness to practice. She was admonished, despite the admission by the GMC that they had sufficient evidence to charge her with professional misconduct, on account of her pleading "overwork". The children received "counselling" for abuse that never took place and their parents were given compensation to console them for having to deal with the non-existent abuse. The total cost to Newcastle Council was an estimated £4 million. Scotland's equivalent were Orkney, Western Isles and Ayrshire (twice). Over 2,500 families have contacted the British False Memory Society as a consequence of having been falsely accused of child sexual abuse but that is only a fraction of those who have been affected.

Having been through that particular nightmare myself, I can vouch for the fact that in all of the cases with which I am familiar, the mendacity of the authorities in question were a major factor. In my case, the only public body which acted with any degree of professionalism was the police, while every other individual involved, from doctors, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, their supervisors, their employers, expert witnesses and a Scottish Government Cabinet Minister, lied and continued to lie over a period of fourteen years. People have asked why it took so long for the truth of Hillsborough to come out. That is easy to answer. Public bodies have a bottomless pit of public money which they are willing to spend either in order to keep the "problem" out of court, which they successfully managed to do in my case for almost eleven years or, to hire their "expert witnesses" who can always be relied on to tell whatever story, or take whatever line, is required of them. In my book "Unbreakable Bonds" I not only give a detailed account of the lies that were told, I name each and every individual who told them.

Those of us on the independence side of the referendum debate, have always hoped that an independent Scotland would offer us the opportunity to build a Scotland free of the corruptions associated with the establishment of the UK. Nothing I have seen of the behaviour of the SNP in government and the other main parties in opposition, gives me any great hope that those expectations and aspirations will be satisfied. I have already given an account of my attempts to have the SNP Government change the law on third party duty of care, which gives a general immunity to public authorities and those employed by them, thereby denying any redress to certain categories of victims of negligence, mendacity or wilful wrongdoing on the part of public bodies and their employees. The Labour, Tory and Lib/Dems were totally disinterested and did not even reply to correspondence. The intention of the SNP Government to introduce legislation, which will abolish the need for corroboration in Scottish criminal cases and allow an accused's previous convictions to be known to a jury, whether or not they have any relevance to the case being tried, will further reduce protections in Scots law and make miscarriages of justice more rather than less likely. No one should be surprised if the authorities - in whatever guise - take advantage of the changes when they are introduced. Colin Boyd, as Scotland's Lord Advocate at the time of the McKie case is on record as stating that "expert witnesses should always be immune from prosecution - even if they give false evidence".

The public outrage at the report on the Hillsborough disaster rings rather hollow after 23 years. The examples given here are only a small selection of the many miscarriages of justice that have taken place in the UK over the years. We live in a state where the establishment acts with an arrogance which can only be explained because they know they have defence mechanisms, paid by the public purse which makes them almost untouchable. Very few individuals can afford to take on public bodies in the courts because the expence is horrendous and they can spend any amount of public money defending the indefensible. Even if that obstacle can be surmounted, the difficulty of getting information can be just as insurmountable, as their lawyers find every opportunity to delay, obfuscate and even obliterate important information. In my case, the social work department destroyed every single original note, claiming it was "standard practise". Unfortunately the public are rarely interested in miscarriages unless they directly effect them and even more unfortunately, as the families of the Hillsborough victims have found to their cost, they are very quick to accept the official line - whatever it is and however unbelievable it appears at first sight. The media plays its part as there are always useful idiots to do the establishment's bidding and push the official line, whatever it is. Investigative journalists - real investagative journalists - are hard to find.

Was Hillsborough a one-off? Not by a long way.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Hypocrisy Of The Union And Unionists

A few weeks ago we were expressing horror at the fact that thousands of Greek parents were giving away their childen because they could not afford to feed them. The blame was being laid squarely at the door of the euro and the fact that Greece should never have joined the single currency. Opprobrium was heaped on the heads of Greek politicians and, quite rightly so, some of the biggest offenders lost office. The loss of political office however, was as nothing compared to what the Greek people were losing in terms of their dignity, self-respect and even their families.

We now learn that thousands of Scots are in exactly the same situation, as unemployment has increased, forcing many of our country men and women to rely on the charity of the churches, which have been providing food parcels to people whose only crime is to be unemployed. Not only are they unemployed, they are left at the mercy of our bureaucratic system which determines who does and who does not get benefits. Bureaucrats have never been known for their sensitivity in dealing with those who rely on them for their every means of sustenance. I can still remember when the dole queues snaked around the interiors of the most soulless buildings imagineable and the poor unfortunates who were there to "sign on", were separated from those who decided whether or not there was a job for them, by a solid mesh fence. The way the least able and the least likely to find work - any kind of work - were treated, was nothing short of despicable. Nothing will strip a man or woman of their dignity quicker, than a spell on the list of the unemployed. It is only a matter of weeks before they see themselves as being "unemployable", purely and simply because they lose faith in themselves, because their confidence is stripped from them, as rejection follows rejection and job applications are not even acknowledged.

There is nothing new about high levels of unemployment in Scotland. There is nothing new about the SNP campaigning against job losses and in the early years of the first Thatcher government the party was rarely off the streets. In the first twelve months of her being in office, as Vice Chairman in charge of policy in the SNP, I organised demonstrations in the four major cities in Scotland, as well as giving the workers at the Lee Jeans factory, our full-hearted support in their fight against the factory closure. The party fought hard against the closures of the steel mills in Scotland, a legacy of Heath's deal with the Common Market, supported the miners in their fight against pit closures and supported the initiatives of the STUC, as the trade unions in Scotland did their best to fight unemployment. Gordon Wilson and I had several meetings with the TUs and management at Ravenscraig and for the first time ever, we had formal discussions with the STUC.

In July 1986, an economic summit met in Glasgow to discuss Scotland's economic situation, under the auspices of the STUC and Strathclyde Regional Council. It included representatives from Scotland's political parties, the Trade Unions, industry and commerce, the churches and local government. I had a long chat with Cardinal Tom Winning, who for the first time as far as I was aware, made his interest in independence known to the SNP. There was nothing very new about this type of response to Tory governments. The STUC convened an "Assembly on Unemployment" in Edinburgh in 1972 with unemployment at 85,000; a "Convention on Unemployment" in Glasgow in December 1980 with unemployment at 250,000 and the "Economic Summit" in July 1986 with unemployment at 480,000. As on each of the previous occasions, a standing commission was set up, of which nothing more was heard after the 1972 and 1980 meetings and although an SNP suggestion that we meet each year for the next four years  was agreed, the end result was much the same.

The STUC produced a discussion document, "Scotland - a strategy for the future" which included proposals which were a radical departure from the anodyne documents of the past. For example it said, "A directly elected Scottish Assembly, with independent revenue raising powers is carry out the scale of the regeneration envisaged in this paper." It then went on to say that in order to protect the UK (including Scottish) companies, a future government should "limit shareholding by foreign bidders.... " and "set up a specifically Scottish watchdog". Some of the proposals could not have been completed without Scottish independence, something which seemed to pass unnoticed by the document's authors. The introduction states, "The final programme for recovery, while part of an overall United Kingdom plan must never-the-less be geared to suit specific Scottish needs", while the conclusion points out, "Scotland is not a poor country. We are the fifth largest oil producer etc etc..."

Why take this quick romp round recent Scottish industrial history? For no other reason than to show that nothing in the past thirty odd years has changed, other than the fact that the Trade Unions have disappeared to all intents and purposes. The same anodyne statements are being made by the Labour Party in Scotland, statements which are just as empty today as they were thirty years ago, although thirty years ago Brian Wilson, the Labour Party's arch Unionist and anti-devolutionist, would not have been seen dead as a Trade Envoy for a Tory government.  Mind you, was there any real difference between the Tory governments of Heath, Thatcher and Major and the New Labour governments of Blair and Brown? When Darling became Chancellor in June 2008, UK unemployment stood at 1.72 million and when he left office in May 2010, the figure stood at 2.47 million. Osbourne has increased the UK jobless figure to 2.56 million. In May 2008, the month before Darling took office, unemployment in Scotland stood at 105,000 and by September the same year it was 112,000. In May 2010 the Scottish figure had climbed to 216,000 and currently stands at 214,000 although the figure in December 2011 went up to 231,000 and Scottish figures in the early part of this year tended to buck the UK trend, something which analysts find it difficult to explain.

In 2009, when the unemployment figure in Scotland stood at 157,000, experts predicted that the Scottish figure would peak at around 230,000 by the end of 2011. The same experts also predicted that it would be 2017 before levels of unemployment in Scotland returned to the levels of 2008 or, 105,000. In spite of the history of unemployment over the past thirty years and before that, albeit that Scottish unemployment during part of that time, was lower than that of the rest of the UK, Unionists and the "No" campaigners insist in suggesting that an independent Scotland will have a difficult time. They have no answer to the current problems for the unemployed in Scotland. They have no shame at the fact that Scots are having to live on food parcels, something which should be inconceivable in the fifth highest oil-producing country in the world. The STUC commented on that fact nearly thirty years ago but neither the TUs nor the Labour Party in Scotland were prepared to allow the Scottish people to enjoy the fruits of their own resources. They preferred to lie and hide the details of the McCrone Report from the Scottish people, in order to save the Union. What is so special about the Union of the UK, that many Scots would rather see their children live off food parcels and charity than live in an independent Scotland?

Sunday, 2 September 2012

New Figures on Drink Consumption But Same Old Arguments

It was announced last week that for the first time since records began in 1994, the amount of alcohol sold in Scotland has fallen. Health officials have warned however, that consumption of alcohol in Scotland is still 10% higher than it was 18 years ago and 20% higher than current consumption in England and Wales. There could be several reasons for this, some cultural, some economic, but the new figures have done little or nothing to persuade the usual suspects on either side of the "Minimum Pricing War", to re-examine their positions. If anything, they have simply been spun by each side, in order to show they were right all along.

It would be a gey queer person who claimed that alcohol is not a problem in Scotland, that it has not been a problem not just for years but for generations. I would suggest that the problem now is far greater because of the number of women who think it is perfectly socially acceptable to be seen falling around drunk out of their skulls, in pubs and clubs, public transport and the streets. I can remember when very few women would allow themselves to be seen drunk in public and those who did, rightly or wrongly, were looked down on by their family and neighbours. I have no intention of rehearsing the problems that excessive alcohol consumption can create because the person who cannot see them for themselves must be wilfully blind. The argument about Minimum Pricing is worth re-visiting however, since government policy based on a false interpretation of the available statistics, is bound to fail at best or at worst, creat another set of problems without solving the original problem with alcohol.

It is claimed that studies have shown that consumption is directly affected by price and, it makes sense to increase price so that consumption will fall. The theory then goes on to claim that the number of hospital visits will be cut by 3,000 a year, the number of deaths will be cut by over 500 a year and the number of crimes will be cut by more thousands a year. Those figures are based on assumptions that the theory is correct, not on any factual evidence. It is assumed that those who are the problem drinkers, the thugs who cause mayhem, the ones with the health problems, will alter their drinking habits as a consequence of the price hike. Dream on. Problem drinkers by definition, do not alter their drinking habits, even in spite of legal penalties, health penalties and broken families and why those who want to solve the problems cannot see that, is quite beyond me. The image of the "wee hard man" who drinks nips and pints is well known in Scottish culture and any man that cannae drink is no a man. That type of drinker could no more say what a unit of alcohol costs than fly in the air.

None the less, Peter Rice, chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems proclaimed, "The latest NHS figures show as the cheapest alcohol has increased in price, its sales have decreased and overall alcohol sales have also decreased. What clearer demonstration can we have of the link between unit price of alcohol and its consumption? And how outrageous is it for the industry to deny that such links exist?" Minimum pricing has not yet been introduced, therefore it can hardly be responsible for the reduction in alcohol consumption. Mr Rice goes on, "Many studies have shown price increases have a substantial impact on reducxing consumption and lead to significant health and social benefits". The main study in the UK is that which was carried out by the University of Sheffield in 2008 and applies only to England, although it is the one which is used to justify the policy of minimum pricing. The study states, "there is substantial uncertainty in the available evidence and need for further research." It also confirmed that no study has been made of price increases on specific groups of drinkers, therefore there is no evidence of what effect price increases have had on those with a drink problem or, who can be classed as problem drinkers.

That is also true of the study in the USA, "Effects of Price On Alcohol Consumption and Consequences" but at least that study did make a distinction between "demand" and the "quantity demanded". A change in price will have an effect on the quantity demanded of a good or service but it will not effect the general level of demand. It is that distinction, on which policy decisions by a series of Chancellors of the Exchequor in UK governments, have been determined. Increases in tax on alcohol would have been counterproductive and total revenues would have fallen, if the general level of demand was effected by an increase in price brought about by an increase in taxation. The concept is known as the elasticity of demand, which means that the percentage change in the quatity demanded will be less than the percentage change in price, thereby leading to an increase in revenue. When the policy was announced a few weeks ago, a Canadian spokesman from Toronto was interviewed and when asked if the policy worked he said, "It definitely does because when we increased the unit price of alcohol, although sales were down, revenues still went up".

What that should have told him was that the policy was a failure, as sales may have gone down but not by enough to have a major effect on problem drinkers, as total revenues still went up. As elsewhere, Toronto had no idea if those who had decreased their consumption, were those who were causing the problems associated with excessive consumption of alcohol. Just to add to the mix, other "experts" now claim that "gangsters will double their trade in illegal alcohol, to the value of £500 million". Where do they get the figures? From the same place as all the other "experts" in this so-called debate get theirs, from some other "expert's" febrile imagination, although this "expert" goes by the name of an Edinburgh-based think tank called Front Line Policy.

If consumption of alcohol has gone down in Scotland, does anyone know why? The short answer is "No" because there has been no study done but it is likely to have something to do with the fact that the country has been in recession for the past few years, that the general level of income has gone down in many households as unemployment and part-time working has increased. In the majority of households in Scotland which do not have a problem with drink, people will have re-assessed their spending patterns and the odd bottle of wine or spirits will no longer be purchased. There will also be fewer nights out and less spent when they do go out. In other words the majority of people in Scotland do not have a drink problem and when economic conditions deteriorate, whatever alcohol that was drunk, is no longer drunk. Has that helped to solve the drink problem that Scotland does have? Not really, as the people who are drinking less did not have a problem in the first place. Will it change the mind set of the protagonists on both sides of the argument about minimum pricing? On the evidence so far, the short answer is "NO". Those who are against, are more against because they now see no necessity for it as consumption has already fallen. Those who are "for", are even more "for" because they aver that the correlation between price increases and consumption are now proved, despite the price increases having yet to be implemented.

Perhaps one day it will be accepted by both sides that those who have a drink problem in Scotland, will not have that problem solved by hiking up the unit price of alcohol. Those with a substantial problem will do without food and other goods, in order to buy drink and the higher the price is hiked, the more of other items will be sacrifised in order to buy drink. It may suit politicians to claim success or those who do not understand basic economics, however sincere their belief in what they are doing. Alcohol will continue to be a problem in Scotland until we change the culture, not the price

Saturday, 1 September 2012

"Anybody Moves and the N***** Gets It"

Anyone who saw the Western spoof "Blazing Saddles" by Mel Brooks, is unlikely to forget the scene when the newly appointed black Sheriff of Rock Ridge, in an attempt to avert a riot by the racist residents of the town, puts his six shooter to his own head and declares, "Anybody moves and the N***** gets it".

When the SNP announced it intended to forge ahead with legislation on same-sex marriage, my wife and I were watching the news on TV and I started to laugh as that image came to mind, with Alex Salmond in the role of Sheriif Bart. While the First Minister has not been without his critics, on the way he has approached the independence campaign, the media - at least the more up-market parts of it - have generally been complimentary. In fact, for some months he escaped any criticism at all, as the history of the SNP was re-written and he was lauded and applauded as the "best" politician in the UK not just Scotland. As the campaign has begun to unfold and the SNP has adopted the strategy of trying to persuade the Scottish people that Independence means "little or no change", serious questions are now being asked about not just the meaning of "Independence" but the leadership qualities of the First Minister.

Will the attempt to ditch the SNP's long-standing anti NATO stance, with the implications for its anti-nuclear commitment, be the final straw for many party members? There has not been such open hostility to the party leadership's initiative since the days of the '79 Group. Many party members, who remained totally silent while the leadership signed away large tranches of Scottish sovereignty to the EU, who saw nothing wrong with allowing London to control monetary policy and interest rates in an independent Scotland, despite its recent abysmal history in that field of economics, have suddenly found their voices and said "enough is enough". It seems that some principles are more important than others and for some party members, being true to their anti-nuclear principles is obviously more important than being true to their commitment to independence.

Be that as it may, should the First Minister and his defence spokeman, Angus Robertson, not have seen it coming or, are they so used to a supine membership that they just assumed it would do whatever the leadership had decided was good for the party? Had the membership not been told that some focus group somewhere, had expressed some reservations about an independent Scotland coming out of NATO, thereby leaving us wide open to attack from - well London perhaps, as the rUK debated whether or not to bomb our airports just in case some terrorist group somewhere decided to do it first. Did the focus group actually name a potential enemy, just waiting for our membership of NATO to end, so that they could strike? We have to assume that the First Minster and his defence spokesman at least, have identified the potential enemy and will announce who they are to the world and its dug, at SNP Annual Conference in Perth this month.

A number of party members have let it be known that their membership is at stake if the leadership gets its way and membership of NATO becomes party policy for the first time in almost four decades. Despite assurances to the contrary, they see membership of NATO as the first step in accepting Trident or its successor on the Clyde. If that was not enough for the leadership to contend with, legislation on same sex marriage was quickly added to the mix of potential "deal-breakers" for party members. The Chairman of Gordon Wilson's old constituency Dundee East, has already very publicly, tendered her resignation after 47 years of unbroken party membership and more will follow. Again, someone who could accept the signing away of Scottish sovereignty, could not accept same sex marriage. She still intends to vote "Yes" in the independence referendum but her SNP membership is ended. Several letter writers to a number of national newspapers, have made it clear they may not be far behind.

Alex Salmond and the SNP have taken both plaudits and abuse in almost equal measure because it is not just the Catholic Church which is opposed to same sex marriage, although that church has been the most vocal critic. For whatever reason and despite their well-known opposition, the Islamic community, the Chruch of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland have not been prepared to put their collective heads above the parapet to the same extent as the Catholic Church. Perhaps even more than the issue of NATO, same sex marriage could prove to be the stick that broke the Independence camel's back. Tom French of Equality Network said, "It is increasingly clear that the Church has an anti-gay agenda that it wants to impose on the rest of society." The Catholic Church's opposition to homosexuality is not new, it has been made very openly for generations, as has the opposition of the other churches. What the Church fears is that the views of Mr French will be imposed on the Church, despite assurances to the contrary. We are reminded by Mr French et al, that we live in a democracy, but it would seem that it does not apply to the Catholic Church, which under the principles of democratic government, has every right to state its views and even campaign to have them implemented.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government has stated, "We intend to proceed with plans to allow same sex marriage and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships because we believe it is the right thing to do".  The spokesman continued, "We are equally committed to protecting religious freedom and freedom of expression and ensuring that religious celebrants opposed to same sex marriage do not have to solemnise same sex ceremonies". Are those words totally meaningless or is the assurance given in the sure and certain knowledge that once the law is passed, the Churches will be obliged to adhere to it? If that is the case, Salmond has unleashed something for which he will be very sorry. If no Catholic priest is to be compelled to conduct a religious ceremony for two homosexual or lesbian people who want to, in their eyes, have their union blessed and sanctified by their church, what is the point of the legislation? Civil Partnerships enjoy exactly the same rights as partners in a civil marriage, under the 2004 Act of the Westminster Parliament, therefore what is to be gained, in a practical sense, through same sex marriage?

Equality legislation in the USA caused Catholic charities which placed children for adoption, to close their doors in a number of states. In 2010, under the civial marriage laws in the District of Columbia, a Catholic charity in Washington closed down rather than place children with same sex parents. Catholic Care, which serviced Leeds and Middlesbrough, lost its legal battle in April 2011 and othe charities in a similar situation have either closed their doors or broken away from their diocese, rather than flaunt the law. What will the Church(es) do if a same sex couple choose to push the issue - and there is almost bound to be one? The Church, if it adheres to its principles and doctrine, can only refuse. And then what? Will the end result be the withdrawal from the Church, of the right to conduct a marriage ceremony? The Labour Party used to claim that the SNP would close all Catholic schools and I can imagine what the less scrupulous will do with same sex marriage, despite the support currently being given by Labour and other political parties in Scotland.

What possessed Salmond and his advisers to pick two such divisive issues to debate within two years of the far more important referendum on independence? NATO is seen as a vote winner among the waverers for independence, although no more than a handful of the electorate could point to a potential enemy for an independent Scotland or explain who is being deterred by our current membership of NATO. For the sake of allaying some indeterminant fear, among an unidentified body of possible "Yes" voters, the leadership has decided to alienate a sizeable number of the party's membership. If enacting same sex marriage is "the right thing to do" what practical benefits are being bestowed on gays? If the Church is not going to be obliged to marry them, what is the purpose of the legislation?

If the SNP actually beileves the change in legislation is the "right thing to do", do they intend to take that attitude with all legislation? I have tried to get them to change the law on Third Party Duty of Care, where the current legislation allows innocent parents and other third parties to be the victims of miscarriages of justice and suffer severe dislocation in their lives but are denied the right to see their persecutors brought to justice because they are granted a general immunity from prosecution. I was referred to a House of Lords decision of 2005, which stated that "falsely accused, innocent parents are a price worth paying". It would appear therefore "it is the right thing to do" in only some cases. I have no strong views on same sex marriage and feel that when homosexuality became legal, there is no logical case can be made against same sex marriage. A religious objection is somewhat different and logic does not come into it.

The SNP annual conference should be worth attending this year, if for no other reason than the members might be given an explanation why the leadership decided to cut the feet from the party's independence campaign, before it even got started.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Will Team GB Help The Union?

The Unionists are still desperately trying to turn the Olympics into a "Save The Union" campaign, with commentators and even cartoonists, getting in on the act. In April, I commented on an article by Hamish Macdonnell of the Daily Mail, which I thought was an absolute travesty of journalism but which is fairly typical of the tripe that had been produced on a regular basis until the Olympics started. Now that Team GB, as we have all had to learn to call Great Britain's Olympians, have racked up enough medals to place us in third place overall, the "Save The Union" campaign has gone into overdrive. Scots, either individually or as part of a "team", have won five gold medals, as well as a number of silver and bronze, causing some pundits to "wonder" if Scots would be as successful on their own. Not once has any pundit asked if the English members of the "team" would be as successful if the Scots were absent. It obviously goes without saying that Scots are merely there to make up the numbers, that they could be easily replaced by any number of English athletes waiting in the wings. Sir Chris Hoy must be very thankful he has been allowed to make his small contribution.

The whole approach of the Unionists in the "No" campaign really has sunk to new depths of pettiness. I thought Macdonnell had touched bottom in April when, among several petty and mean spirited comments he wrote, "The Jessica Ennis Test" - any Scot who cheers on Miss Ennis is British at heart and will take their Britishness into the polling booth with them and vote "No". But the one certainty with Unionists is that they invariably live down to expectations. Struan Stevenson, Tory MEP, tweeted, "Andy Murray great Scot and Olympic champion holding a gold medal and proudly draped in the Union Jack - eat your heart out Alex Salmond." Murdo Fraser, Tory MSP wrote, "As we watch Andy Murray singing our National Anthem, never forget there are small-minded Nationalists who want to destroy Team GB" Fraser obviously misses the irony of his comment. Not to be left out, the so-called Left, in the figure of Charlie Whelan, former political director of Unite, wrote, "Murray sings National Anthem and wraps himself in Union Flag. Alex Salmond will be crying into his whisky." Amanda Platel of the Daily Mail managed to vent her well worn spleen on Kim Little, who plays for Team GB's ladies footbal team, because she refused to sing the National Anthem, suggesting Little "should be ashamed".

Andy Murray has previously been the target of the "hate merchants" among the English nationalists, who condemned him for "not supporting" England in the World Cup. Thus it would seem Scots cannot win. If they win gold they either, have to observe the protocol of the playing of God Save the Queen or, refuse to acknowledge the anthem and walk off. If they sing the anthem - even hesitatingly as Murray did - they condemn themselves to be "British" and in favour of the Union, whatever their stance on the issue. If they do as Kim Little did, and refuse to singalong, the English hate merchants fill the airwaves and social media with their condemnation. Scots athletes have contributed to the success of Team GB at every level, but it would appear that they are there to be tolerated and tolerated, only so long as they display the required degree of "Britishness", which to the vast majority of English people means Englishness. Clare Balding, describing the small posies all medal winners receive, explained, "They are the essence of an English country garden." In other circumstances that would be a completely inoccuous remark and I have no doubt it was meant as such. But, when the political overtones are attached to every other aspect of the games, expect a degree of Scottish sensitivity that would otherwise not be there.

Macdonnell's article was headed, "Gold Rush could save the Union" and it included the following example of the type of bile to which we have become so accustomed and, which looks as if it is going to be continued. "For Scottish Nationalists, this clear cut issue (cheering UK athletes) is not quite so straightforward. They don't like the idea of a British team in the first place. Add to that the difficulty of cheering an English athlete...." "So confused will they become indeed, that many Nationalists will probably just opt out of the whole shebang..." "It is easy to see them retreating to their Saltire-covered basements to watch endless re-runs of Braveheart..." I am a hard-line, uncompromising Scottish nationalist, who has fought for the restoration of Scottish independence for my entire life and Macdonnell and the rest of the poisonous crew that make up a substantial part of the UK media, could not be more wrong about me and the vast majority of the type of Nationalists I have always known.

My wife and I have five grown children, all of whom have grown children of their own and all of whom were brought up in a sports mad household. As children they were all involved in sport and all attended the judo club at which I coached. There were two or three training nights each week and every Sunday, the entire club, seniors and juniors, did a cross-country run of between three and seven miles, followed by an hour at the swimming pool. In our house, that was followed by a substantial cooked breakfast which my wife had ready for us coming home. That kind of fitness regime was carried on into adult life and our love of sport has never waned. Having attended training sessions at Meadowbank with Brian Jacks, Dave Starbrook and Keith Remfrey, in the days when British judo meant something, I know exactly what the judo players did to prepare for the Games. Likewise, having participated in eventing, I know the courage and skill involved in winning silver. My wife and I have been glued to the TV since the Olympics began and have had absolutely no problem in cheering on English athletes, some of whom needed all the cheering they could get.

Jessica Ennis is the type of role model that any country would be proud to have, therefore the fact she is English is neither here nor there. When she, and many of the other athletes we have watched with admiration this past two weeks, is compared with the likes of some of the role models Britain's youth have had in recent years, we can only hope that at least some of her qualities will be aped by Britain's youth. Our admiration for Jessica Ennis will make not a whit of difference to our intention to vote "Yes" in the referendum. Unionists may yet find their pettiness will backfire as the Commonwealth Games fall due only weeks before the poll for the referendum. Scots athletes have done well in the Olympics, something which should encourage them to continue to keep up the standards they have achieved. If those standards can be translated into medals in the Commonwealth Games, the only time Scots get the opportunity to compete in their own nation's colours, Murray, Hoy, McColgan et al may be given the opportunity to be the first Scots to sing their own National Anthem, thereby giving encouragment to their fellow Scots to ensure it will always be their own Anthem they will be required to sing.