Friday, 25 May 2018

The economics of inequality, Darling's short answer to Indy Growth Report

From my Daily Record column

OLD generals are apt to fight the last war, not the next one. Sometimes it felt that way as Alistair Darling and Ruth Davidson warned against the potency of nationalism.
Darling was clear the battleground remains the economy.
"If people believe the Union is not delivering for them, the argument for breaking away will only gather strength," he told a conference in Westminster, where few nationalists were present and none made presentations.
Davidson regretted how the lessons of 2014 had not been learned for the EU referendum campaign, neglecting how the lessons were very well learned by her opponents on the Leave side.
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove simply picked up the baton where Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon left it and neutralised the negatives of Project Fear II, amplified claims tenfold and repeated their version of baloney with more conviction.
Remainers think it was foolish of Leave to paint the "£350 million a week for the NHS" slogan on the side of a bus.
This overlooks how Leave won, like Donald Trump won, by riding aboard a big red lie and surfing on emotion, not economics.
As the Brexit result came in, SNP strategists were kicking the family dog wondering if they had made even bolder independence claims they might have caught the anti-politics surge which brought Brexit to shore.
There's always another wave and this week's new claim, independence will make every family £4100 better off, might look good on the side of a bus too.
On one issue Darling and Davidson were agreed, people are weary of debating independence and of referenda. They might be but again this neglects how wearing down the opposition is a long game strategy. It is why former senior SNP advisers have gone into industry and lobbying firms, like Jesuit missionaries, spending years in the business jungle persuading the wealth creators who were so opposed last time.
It is why the subtext of SNP messaging on the Wilson Growth Commission, launched without the razzmatazz of flash bulbs so it does not crash on takeoff, is to simply give this new case for independence a reasonable hearing.
Levering extraordinary ideas to parity with common sense and then presenting the two as reasonable options is an old political trick.
Darling noted on Monday the longer the independence campaign went on, the more embedded the fantasy economics became. So, sure, some experts will be found to back the idea of a separate Scottish currency, with or without a central bank, and other experts will disagree.
You, the voter, then decide between two "reasonable" ideas circulating in the political bloodstream for some time.
It is to deny the economics of independence a foothold on reasoned ground that UK Ministers will show the Growth Commission the same regard most people have for the Alex Salmond Show, and simply ignore it.
That, of course, would be a mistake as the weary generals of Unionism must accept. Darling redeemed himself by spelling out his Labour counter to nationalism, it is social justice.
In both Brexit and Indy campaigns it was easy to encounter people who felt they were losing out to another group because of the way politics is run.
"Unless we sort out the economics of inequality, particularly outside big cities, that cause the rise of nationalism we are storing up problems for ourselves," said Darling, emphasising how this is not a passing phase.
"It may not manifest itself in a vote on Europe but something else will come along and someone will say, 'You're living like this and it is someone else's fault'."
"The only right thing to do is fix the lack of opportunity, to let people know they are cared about, or the same problems will manifest themselves again."

Monday, 16 April 2018

Sùil air an Tsunami, BBC Alba, Diardaoin 8.30f

Anns an stiùidio le Iain Moireasdan airson Fianais

“Inns dhuinn mun chogadh”, bhiomaid a‘ faighneachd nar cloinn, agus gheibheamaid sgeulachdan èibhinn mu phuirt air taobh eile an t-saoghail agus seòladairean annasach. Cha robh dad ann mu chogadh.

Cha do thuig mi sin gus an deach iarraidh orm pàirt a ghabhail ann am prògram Fianais, far am bi Iain Moireasdan a’ còmhradh riuthasan a bh‘ ann agus a chunnaic tachartasan eachdraidheil.

‘S e an cuspair agamsa an Sual Mòr ann an 2004, an Tsunami Àisianach. Chuir mi seachad cola-deug ag aithris bho theis-meadhan an sgrios a mharbh còrr is cairteal de mhillean.

Mar a b‘ fhaisge a thàinig sinn air clàradh a‘ phrògraim, ‘s ann bu lugha a chuimhnich mi. na rudan èibhinn, bha iad agam, ach cha robh an còrr eile.

‘S ann nuair a lorg mi agus a leugh mi airson a‘ chiad uair na h-aithisgean a chuir mi dhan phàipear-naidheachd agam bho chionn ceithir bliadhna deug, a thàinig a h-uile càil air ais.

Am fàileadh, na seallaidhean, na cuileagan, na làraidhean làn de chuirp. Bha mi air mo ghlasadh a-mach às mo chuimhne airson mo dhìon fhìn.

Tha na thàinig a‘ taomadh a-mach ri fhaicinn air Fianais, Diardaoin-sa tighinn aig 8.30f air BBC Alba.


“Tell us about the war”, we used to ask as children and we’d get amusing reports about harbours on the other side of the world and strange sailors. There was nothing about actual war
I didn’t understand why until I was asked to take part in the programme Fianais (Witness), in which John Morrison talks to those who have been and seen historic events.
My subject was the Great Wave of 2004, the Asian Tsunami. 
I spent a fortnight reporting from the epicentre of the disaster which killed over a quarter of a million people.
The closer it came to recording the programme, the less I remembered.
The funny things I could recall, but not the rest of it. 
It was when I found and read for the first time the reports I had sent to my stories newspaper 14 years ago that everything came back.
The smells, the sights, the insects, the lorries full of bodies.
I had been locked out of my memory for my own protection.

What came tumbling out can be seen on Fianais, next Thursday at 8.30pm on BBC Alba.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The swing away from Europe's forgotten Spring

From my Daily Record column 13/04/18

Kenneth Murray, Murdo Morrison and myself, Czechoslovakia, March 1990

In the spring of 1990, as the walls came tumbling down, I travelled with two friends on an 2000-mile round car trip to the newly liberated countries of central Europe.

We had our passports stamped at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, as East Germany held its first free elections since 1932.

We drank in Prague beerhouses and stayed in art deco splendour as Czechoslovakia went to the polls, and we swam in the steam baths of Budapest as old men played chess after voting.

We made it there and back in a 950cc Ford Fiesta with a battery tape recorder blasting out Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World.

I realise this is not everyone’s idea of an Easter break but after the Soviet Union collapsed, the prospect of a liberated, united Europe drew everyone east.

We met Labour’s Brian Wilson in Berlin, bumped into Lib Dem veteran Russell Johnston in Budapest’s Intercontinental hotel. For once, Russell wasn’t in Brussels.

Budapest, when we arrived in our sewing machine car, was the most westernised capital of them all.

The legacy of the 1956 uprising, the education system and liberalised economy gave it a real head start on other eastern neighbours.

Last weekend, after the re-election of right-wing populist Victor Orban as Hungary’s PM, I messaged a friend in Budapest, a descendant of one of the small pocket of Hungarian Jews who survived the Nazis.

In good news, she is expecting a baby. But as for her country, she texted back: “Extremely sad.” It is likely she’ll move her life to Paris.

The pendulum swing from communism to neo-nationalism that has barbed wire fences going back up on Hungary’s border is tragic.

Orban was re-elected on a single issue – immigration, with anti-Semitic and anti-Islam overtones.

He used the same image of queuing migrants as UKIP played in the last days of the Brexit referendum (I feel sorry for Scots photographer Jeff Mitchell, whose image of refugees in Slovenia has been misappropriated).

Results like Orban’s – he controls two thirds of parliamentary seats – show voters aren’t going to back to the “sensible centre” any time soon.

Not under the old rules anyway. Politics is in the grip of populists.

I reckon this is why talk of a new centrist party in the UK is a dead loss.

Despairing of Jeremy Corbyn, some in the centre left are sniffing around for a new political vehicle.

The money is there but the backing isn’t because splitting the Labour vote simply allows the Conservatives to remain in government and sustain the SNP at Westminster.

And what would a centrist party have to say to voters driven to tribal extremes?

When radicals gain ground, even people with reasonable views are driven into the bunkers. The lesson of the post-crash world is that populism is an easier sell than reason.

The only European exception is president Macron, who I’m beginning to think is not the new radical centre but a throwback to market-driven Blairism which France skipped out on for years.

Soon enough, populists move on to scapegoats or sell mirages too ludicrous to accept. Just watch Brexit unfold.

The mainstream challenge is to respond with optimism about what can be achieved, to somehow find a voice that squares identity politics with a bigger picture, that addresses fears of migrants and resists the downsides of globalisation.

With voters not hankering for the middle ground, it is a big ask.

Another liberalising European spring is down a rocky road. Democracy needs more than an underpowered hatchback for the journey.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Fishing barons the Brexit winners

From my Daily Record column

The fishing fiasco has exposed the utter shallowness of Conservative thinking on Brexit, and much else besides.

Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson were fools to cast aside a political rule to under-promise and over-deliver in a rush to say the UK will quickly gain control of territorial fishing waters.

Desperate for a Brexit win, they set the UK up for a fall.

Russia is not the only country which delights in sowing dicord.

French negotiators read British newspapers, saw what the pair wanted and simply said: “Non”.

The EU will set quota until 2020 and France proposed not just that the UK have no say but that our share be reduced too.

British negotiators were lucky to escape with the current quota intact, and that was bad enough.

Politicians then danced a sailor’s hornpipe to outdo each other on outrage.

To calm Scottish Tory MPs, whose lease on the north east has fishing and Brexit stamped on every page, chief whip Julian Smith told them not to worry because “it’s not like the fishermen are going to vote Labour”.

Unbelievably, Smith is Scottish but hasn’t caught up on the last 30 years of SNP dominance in fishing communities cut short by Brexit.

They just don’t get it but neither do nationalists clamouring that the UK will sell out fishing for a better deal for London’s financial services.

The choice is not between banking and fishing quotas, it will be about how much quota the UK will share versus the EU trade tariffs fish exports could face.

The hard-Brexit Rees-Mogg and his Scottish valet, Ross “Jeeves” Thomson MP, propose what might amount to a quick quota grab for the white fish fleet.

But for the majority of Scottish fishermen, the in-shore boats that export shellfish landings into the EU, it would be a disaster.

Before their limited free trade deal with the EU, Canadian fishermen faced an eight per cent import tariff on lobster - double if the produce was frozen.

That’s the price the Scottish shellfish industry would pay under a sovereign seas policy Farage and Co demand.

Fishing, like shipyards, is a deeply symbolic industry, but just who are politicians fighting this Brexit war for?

To their credit (and the EU’s), Scotland’s white fish fleet went through years of conservation pain and decommissioned boats.

Perversely, as stocks recovered, quota was gathered into fewer hands and fishing power was concentrated in supertrawlers capable of hoovering up tons of stock in one catch.

Effective control of the Scottish fishing industry now rests with a few dozen multi-millionaire owners across the north-east and northern isles.

These fishing barons are licking their lips at the prospect of leaving the EU and dictating policy to MPs marching up Downing Street to their tune.

What chance for conservation or a re-balancing of the fishing industry if it’s the megabucks interests masquerading as a heritage industry who call the shots?

There is a genuine opportunity in Brexit, though Theresa May probably didn’t register it when she said: “We want to rebuild our fishing industry.”

Voiceless, run-down fishing communities want that too but there isn’t a post-Brexit plan which speaks to them any more than there is for negotiating Brexit in the first place.

Right now all Brexit means for fishing is allowing millionaire Scottish quota owners and huge English quota conglomerates (foreign-owned some of them) the opportunity to plunder more from the seas.

If it is about the catch to profit ratio of millionaires, Brexit will be a real betrayal of coastal communities.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Salisbury and Salmond

From my Daily Record column today
We awake, blinking into a the new world of war where guns and missiles have been replaced by fake news on Facebook, poisoned spies and useful idiots.

The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter using a Russian military grade nerve agent was a very loud wake-up call. You would have to be politically deaf, deluded or Jeremy Corbyn to ignore it.

Like it or not we are, and have been for some time, engaged in a humming, constant conflict with Vladimir Putin’s criminal regime.

Over the last few years we have seen the symptoms, in the Crimea, in the interference of in US elections and now on the streets of Salibury.

What happened last week was not a targeted assassination of a traitor, it was a massive political assault against the west.

For those still scrambling around for an alternative explanation it is maybe best to spell it out - we are meant to know it was Russia behind the attack, we are meant to feel powerless to respond.

My essential catch-up viewing this week has not been the Alexei Salmond show, more on that later, but a timely BBC documentary on the Russia’s new Tsar, Vladimir Putin.

Feeling isolated and paranoid about the West, Putin embarked on a campaign of chaos to undermine his enemies.

This first use of chemical warfare in Europe was designed to destabilise the UK (it has succeeded) and to further isolate the country just as it breaks its bonds with the EU.

Fail to respond and Theresa May would have looked weak, but ramp up the rhetoric and the world discovers the limits of Britain’s international reach.

The collective European response will be meagre and Britain is left with a Frank Spenser lookalike of a Defence Secretary telling Russia “go away” and “shut up”.

Moscow snorts and continues to deny all facts, because these can be countered with alternative facts in the “post-truth” world.

Which takes us neatly to Alex Salmond.

It was never in doubt that the former First Minister would go ahead with his defiant broadcast on RT this week, though even his friends must have watched thinking this was quite a long way for one of the best politicians of his generation to fall. 

Salmond’s claim to be free from political interference gives RT the same veneer of impartiality as ballot boxes give to this Sunday’s Russian elections. 

The former SNP leader is not gullible nor naive. He knows RT is one part of the Putin’s full spectrum arsenal to undermine western democracies.

But he and Moscow share a common objective, to diminish confidence in established UK broadcasters and to weaken the unity of the United Kingdom. 

Salmond properly recognises the BBC as a keystone of shared British identity. By jacking himself up on RT pedestal he can pretend, well he can try to pretend, the Russian propaganda arm is on a parr with the BBC or ITV. 

There is enough of a receptive audience out there to make the cringing performance worthwhile.

The current First Minister is cleared to be a centre-ground stateswoman, turning the gas down on constitutional rows, leaving Corbyn in the shade with words of solidarity on the steps of Downing Street.

Salmond talks to those willing to lulled by an alternative story, highlighting the Labour leader’s isolation by lending him a crutch.  

That looks like a smart win-win for someone. With Salmond and Corbyn it is Putin who wins twice. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

A robin visits, thoughts on the Scottish budget

From my Daily Record column 2/02/18

A little robin was trapped in the Commons chamber on Wednesday just before Prime Minister’s Questions started.

Darting from the eaves and perching on the microphone cables, the wee bird proved as distracting to MPs below as women must have been just over a century past as they were forced to watch proceedings separately from men behind the grilles of the Ladies’ Gallery.

This next week will mark 100 years since women secured the right to vote and the event will be rightly commemorated across parliament and the country.

Westminster loves its traditions and bathes in its own history. Here stood Churchill, this statue is where suffragettes chained themselves, yonder is where Dennis Skinner sits. 

All the more surprising then that later on Wednesday MPs actually voted, by a narrow majority, to move out of the palace for six years to allow urgent restoration to the crumbling building.

It really is falling down around their ears, as a daily visitor I can testify to that. But it is all the more ironic that the decision to leave was taken on the day of the robin’s visit. 

The presence of a robin in a household is symbolically regarded as heralding death. Was the wee robin, with its bloodred breast, a harbinger of Britain’s political destiny? 

The Commons, and the Lords, will only move up the road to temporary Whitehall sites in 2025, by which time the UK could be a different place entirely. The SNP MPs, who look so comfortably nested here, wouldn’t want to return at all.

Like the Queen, who appears ornamental but is actually part of that invisible glue that binds this unconstituted Union in one, the foundations of the Westminster parliament go much deeper than the limestone blocks.  
Moving out of the Palace of Westminster, in an era of instability, is quite a risky business.
Votes for women was a long and arduous campaign over years, but since the anti-politics revolution born out of the great Crash of 2008 events from the Arab Spring to Trump and Brexit have moved with remarkable pace.

Though few voters actually visit the place, loosening the ties of the physical building that holds Britain together, the sheer symbolism of a scaffolded “cradle of democracy” while the UK cuts itself loose from the European home, will be a dark foreshadowing.

There’s no question that there will be a building to come back to six years (or a decade) after the work is done, that is to be guaranteed.  Perhaps a shake-down might do British democracy some good.

Who, for example, would see any reason to refurbish the second chamber as a House of Lords?

Surely a New Westminster would be home to a British senate, part of a federalised United Kingdom with the Commons itself a less powerful and more devolved institution? What kind of Britain will MPs come back to if they leave the building, is what the robin asked.

The wee redbreast, its message delivered, was ushered out of the Palace of Westminster on Thursday morning, the doormen assure me.

The politicians will follow seven years hence.

Read Two

Like the old Supertramp single, Derek Mackay wanted the wealthy to “give a little bit” in taxes; for the public sector to “give a little bit” by swallowing waterline wage increases.

It remains to be seen whether his finely tuned budget finds the voters’ sweetspot by appeasing the conscience of middle Scotland with a shimmy to stage left.

Given the polling cushion between the SNP and its rivals, the Finance Secretary could afford to strum out a little bit more of his love.

Scotland is entering the longest period of low growth since 1958, when the BBC  first broadcast the White Heather Club. 

Growth of just 0.6 per cent is positive, but positively anaemic and half the UK rate.

In the Holyrood chamber yesterday Nicola Sturgeon argued the missing ingredient was more power to influence population growth. Well, she would say that.

The last time I looked Holyrood had its hands on tax raising powers, training and education, development agencies and planning and infrastructure and a whole lot of other economic levers. Just getting on with it, as Ministers will argue they do, could be an option.

The options for raising money are limited but there might be better ways to spend it than the busted flush of Carillion-style outsourcing.

Elsewhere people are looking at alternative growth models to make public money go further.

The council in Preston, Lancashire, has gone for ultra-localism, persuading the many public agencies in the town to change their procurement policy and spend government money in the area.

It’s common sense, although it rips up the corporate accountancy conventions that dictates, for example, how we run the police in Scotland.

The SNP do nationalism well, if Mackay looked for lessons from place Preston it might just learn to do localism too. 

Sùil Eile air Sgìrean Glèidhte Mara

Sùil Eile bhon an Daily Record

Cha do mhothaich mòran ann an saoghal poileataigs ach ‘s iad iasgairean an iar-thuath a dh’fheumas a’ phrìs a phàigheadh airson taic nan Uaineach airson buidseat bliadhnail an SNP.

Mar phàirt dhen aonta airson bhòtaichean Uaine, tha an riaghaltas air gealltainn dalladh orra le ceithir Sgìrean Glèidhte Mara (Marine Protected Areas mar a th’ aca orra).

Tha dhà aca far cost Leòdhais agus tè mhor a’ gabhail a-steach nan Eileanan Tarsainn agus Cuan Uibhist.

‘S ann airson dìon nan leumadairean agus nam mucan-mara a-mhàin a tha na sgìrean glèidhte.

Bha dùil ri na sgeamaichean seo co-dhiù ach chan eil sin ag ràdh nach bi iad connspaideach.

Chan eil rian nach bi na sgìrean seo a’ toirt buadh air gnìomhachas an iasgaich. Cho luath ‘s a thogas mi a’ cheist, tha na h-iasgairean a’ dol a-mach air a chèile, na cliabhan an aghaidh nan tràlairean.

Tha fìor-fheum air glèidhteachas, ach le co-obrachadh bho na coimhearsnachdan.

Tha faireachdainn am measg nan iasgairean, ‘s iad a’ gearan nach eil ministearan ag èisteachd riutha, gu bheil barrachd buaidh aig na leumadairean air bhòtaichean na th’ acasan.

Not many noticed in the world of politics but it is the fishermen of the north west who must pay the price for the Greens supporting the SNP’s annual budget.
As part of the agreement for Green votes the government has agreed to press on with four Marine Protected Areas.
Two of them are off the coast of Lewis and a big one takes in the Small Isles and the South Minch.
The protected zones are mainly for dolphins and whales.
These schemes were expected anyway but that does not mean that they won’t be controvesial.
There is no way that these zones will not affect the fishing industry. As soon as I raise that as a question, the fishermen fall out with each other, the creels against the trawlers.
There is a reel need for conservation, but with the co-operation of the communities.
The feeling amongst fishermen, as they complain that ministers aren’t listening to them, is that dolphins have more influence on votes than they do.