Thursday, 26 November 2015

Gaelic TV loses £1m in cuts, UK gov loses influence

Gaelic television is to lose £1 million of UK government funding as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has a budget cut of five per cent and S4C, the Welsh channel, has had a chunk of funding cut too.

But the £1 million represents 100 per cent of the UK government’s  stake in Gaelic broadcasting.

The funding, about five per cent of the Gaelic channel BBC Alba’s total budget, is not a huge amount of but its loss has cultural and political symbolism which appear to have escaped John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary. 

BBC Alba, the Gaelic language TV service (you’ll find it on Sky ch143) is funded from a combination of public sources.

The service was set up the in the 1990s by the then Tory government with funding of £8 million a year, and a dedicated channel came along in 2008 and is well supported by viewers, both Gaelic and English speakers.

It is now funded by the Scottish government to the tune of  £13.8 million, with £1 million from the Department of Culture Media and Sport in Whitehall and £8 million from the BBC in terms of cash and technical services.

In television terms it is not much, but with £1 million the channel was able to produce a drama series, Bannan, which is in its second run.

The loss of the DCMS funding will be a disappointment for MG Alba, which had lobbied for the cash stream to be maintained.

The funding was guaranteed by Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Highland MP, when he was chief secretary of the Treasury.

He understood the value of the small amount of support, but Gaelic now has few friends inside government, and no one was on watch in Westminster looking out for it. 

Culturally, it now looks as if the UK government is just turning its back on one of the country’s oldest indigenous cultures and the medium it has become most accessible in.

In political terms it is a bigger mistake. The funding was the last toe-hold the UK government had on Gaelic broadcasting.

Earlier this month the Scotland Bill included a little-noticed clause devolving power to make appointments to the governing board of the channel to the Scottish government. Now the UK government has surrendered its financial influence too.

Politically, the SNP government wants control of state broadcasting in Scotland,  and in terms of Gaelic it now shares that control with the BBC, as well as the responsibility for funding it.

It is only a hop and a step to extend that argument to English language broadcasting too. 

It may be that the DCMS is cutting the cash to prime the argument that the BBC ought to step in to fill the gap.

There is a BBC review going on right now, which openly questions the value of minority broadcasting and makes some unfavourable comparisons.

Anyone with an interest in Gaelic broadcasting (or a stake, as I do myself as a freelance contributor) should respond to that consultation.

Pressure ought to be brought on Whittingdale and the Scotland Office to revisit the decision,  it is not a lot of money after all.

How much of that pressure will come from the SNP, in whose interest it is not to have UK departmental involvement in Scottish broadcasting, remains to be seen.

SNP up and down the hill on Syria

My Daily Record column today
Jeremy Corbyn’s not the only politician exposed in the searchlights over Syria. 

On an issue as serious as war, Nicola Sturgeon began showing leadership worthy of the Grand Old Duke of York.

Trapped in no-man’s land between being on the right side of the  party activist base and the wrong side of public opinion, the SNP’s spin operation was uncharacteristically skittish.

First Alex Salmond, the party’s Foreign Affairs spokesman and hefty voice in the party, ruled out backing for UK airstrikes. So far so predictable.

But he was countermanded by the First Minister.

She was “prepared to listen” to the case for airstrikes.

Westminster leader Angus Robertson held that line on Sunday morning. He sounded more sceptical by Wednesday.

Then up popped his colleague Stewart Hosie, party deputy leader, saying “at the very least” UN support would be needed for the SNP to back UK action.

Everyone knows there will be no UN security council motion approving air strikes. China and Russia would veto that simply to keep the UK out of the conflict.

Then, on the same day as the First Minister handcuffed her leadership to the sinking stock of Natalie McGarry, she sharpened the position.

“It has got to be action that is right, that will make a positive difference, rather than make the situation worse,” said Sturgeon.

This was beginning to sound like war policy driven by opinion polling.

It may be with the world on a knife edge after a Cold War skirmish that downed a Russian jet that public opinion, hardened by the Paris attacks, has cooled again.

Cameron makes the case for war today, but aren’t we at war in Syria, anyway?

A Freedom of Information request reveals the UK has flown 196 armed drone missions over Syria in the last year, with no civilian casualties the MoD insist.

We have special forces on the ground, RAF pilots flying with Nato allies, a Royal Navy frigate escorting the French carrier,  with our Cyprus airbase and  surveillance and refuelling facilities on call. 

Though the SNP do try to overstate their importance in Commons vote  when it comes to bombing ISIS, Downing Street calculates nationalist votes will be irrelevant.

From Cameron’s point of view, the most important minority votes are these of the eight Democratic Unionist Party MPs.

They’re on board, and we’re well down the road to war in Syria.

We've been expecting you, Mr Monaghan

The SNP’s Paul Monaghan MP might not be paranoid, but it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him.

With MI5 on high alert for a jihadi attack the Caithness MP thought the best use spy time was to ask if he was subject to personal surveillance?

In the Home Office written answer (they cost £164 on average) the spooks hilariously refused to confirm or deny what they were up to. 

Poor Paul, he’ll have to keep looking over his shoulder, though I suspect James Bond has better things to do.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Glimpses of another country

My Daily Record column
Wandering on the Aberdeen esplanade during the SNP conference I glimpsed another country.
Inside the black box conference hall, Scotland was ordered – coming blinking out on to the seafront was to see economic reality.
On the eastern horizon, rig supply boats were lined up far as the eye could see.
These ships are not waiting for a berth in a busy port. With their skeleton crews, they are going nowhere.
The idle fleet is a symbol of the impact the dramatic fall in oil prices has had on the fortunes of Aberdeen and the North Sea industry.
It was like having the central flaw of the independence White Paper writ large.
For each one of its 670 pages of oil-borne promises, 100 North Sea jobs and more are gone.
The jobs pain is spread evenly across the UK but a switch to three-week shifts offshore has effectively cut a third out of the onshore economy that services the turnarounds.
Real jobs, real livelihoods and mortgages hang on the fickle graph of oil barrels across dollars determined far from wellheads and safe harbours.
It has taken a year for senior SNP figures to publicly acknowledge the economics of independence let them down so badly in the referendum.
Whatever the excuses, voters didn’t accept the case. Internally the party has accepted the lesson, as the passionate conference debate on fracking demonstrated.
In their hearts, delegates wanted to ban the industry but Ineos boss Jim Radcliffe’s timely warning about fracking being Scotland’s best chance (last chance?) of “economic independence” rang true for them.
Independence remains the prize, it is just that with diminishing oil resources the price might be getting higher.
On Friday, the gathering storm over the Tata closures in Dalzell and Clydebridge, the outside world interrupted proceedings again.
Nicola Sturgeon promised to do what a Government can to bind the wounds, but for some the grasp on economic reality was slim.
One MSP claimed if Scotland had been independent then the Ravenscraig steel works would have been saved.
Possibly, but unlikely, though that sentiment captures both the strength and weakness of independence economics
Most Scots don’t believe independence could provide any better insulation against the rigours of global markets. That makes independence a hard sell.
Yet the very feeling of powerlessness and fury we feel about rampant globalisation is what makes many people look for alternative economic accounts, for other way of looking at reality.
The corporate muscle that stretches and bends our lives has had its own strong backdraught.
It has driven many voters to turn angrily away from conventional solutions to our problems, to a place where the price of oil will not matter to jobs and the long line of supply boats would not exist.
I dare say that anger over Chinese dumping of steel on the global market provided a distraction as Tata dispensed of what remains of the Scottish steel industry without too much scrutiny.
It is not entirely the fault of the Chinese that steel coming from Scunthorpe to Dalzell cost £325 a slab, wheras the same material could be purchased on the world market for half the price.
We cannot demand Chinese steel workers take redundancy to save ours.
It is one of the contradictions of this complex world that if Scottish steelmaking is to be revived it will likely be rescued by the very people now being scapegoated for its demise, our new friends in the Chinese Communist Party.
Maybe with the honour guard for President Jinping, the demise of steel in Scotland and these lines of boats off Aberdeen during the biggest ever SNP gathering, we all glimpsed another country this week – the one formerly known as Great Britain.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Sturgeon with the whole world in her hands

When will the second referendum be?

It is the question on the lips of hundreds of new members turning up for their first ever SNP conference in Aberdeen today. It’s also the only story really exercising the media in the carnival tent in carpark 4 of the exhibition centre.

Jim Murphy in his exit speech from politics said it would be “as soon as they can get off with it”, and you can forgive the cynicism of Scottish Labour’s lost leader.

Nicola Sturgeon finessed it rather better this morning in her opening speech to the 81st SNP conference.

In a fair attempt at that old circus trick, riding two horses, she assured No voters, the majority of Scots, that there will be no commitment to an independence referendum in next year’s manifesto for the Holyrood.

Simultaneously she warned the result of the referendum we do see coming down the road, the EU vote, could be the trigger for Scotland to exit the UK. “Unstoppable” was her word, not inevitable.

But while trying reassure half the country that they are not entering “neverendum” land with the SNP she has clearly signalled that within months of winning office she could be preparing for a second referendum vote.

For rank and file SNP members, even the newbys who want a Indy2 yesterday, that should suffice. 

Sturgeon, who bestrides Scottish politics, has great command and respect from her party and there will be few, if any, dissenting voices.

It is that level of personal trust and respect that the SNP leadership want to replicate with the Scottish public over the next few months.

The election campaign is going to be all about Nicola (no Alex at all) and how much you trust and respect her to run the country. So the assurance on the referendum is a strong message.

Sturgeon said there would have to be “strong and consistent” evidence that the mood in Scotland has moved to independence before there is a second vote.

How will they know that? Polling evidence for sure but with 114,000 members, about two per cent of the population, the party ought to be able to judge the mood well enough.    

But asked if the future direction of the country would be weighed on the outcome of opinion polls by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg the First Minister let slip the proper answer.

“ It will be down to whether we judge, I judge, that people who voted no last year have changed their minds,” she said.

“I judge” - Nicola Sturgeon, she has your whole world in her hands.

Coin is mhadaidhean-allaidh

Sùil Eile airson an Daily Record

‘S e an t-àite as fheàrr airson chon is mhadaidhean-allaidh rannan a’ bhàird.

Ach tha cuid de dh’amadain a tha airson na beathaichean a leigeil dhan Ghàidhealtachd a-rithist gus an t-àite a dhèanamh na fhìor fhàsach.

Bha aonan aca air an radio an latha roimhe, Alan Watson Featherstone, bho urras a tha a’ cur barrachd luach air glèidheadh chraobhan na air mac an duine.

An rud a tha cunnartach mu leithid, chan e am beachd neònach a th’ aige air madaidhean - sin gòraiche.

‘S e na thuirt e mu dheidhinn dòigh-bheatha a th’ air daoine a chumail anns na gleanntan is na h-eileanan fad bhliadhnaichean a tha marbhtach.

A reir an duine uasail seo, ‘s e “perverse subsidy” a th’ anns an taic airgid do chroitearan airson chaorach.

Bhiodh barrachd mathais air a ghlèidheadh anns an talamh às a h-aonais.

Sin an argamaid a bhiodh aig a’ mhadadh-allaidh cuideachd, nach eil fhios.

Seo mo chomhairlesa - fàg na madaidhean-allaidh gu mac-meanma, agus stamp gu cruaidh air beachdan luchd-glèidhteachais bhreugaich.

The best place for dogs and wolves is in the verses of the bard.
But some fools want to release the beasts in the Highlands again to turn the place into a real wilderness.
One of them was on radio the other day, Alan Watson Featherstone, from a trust that puts more value in hugging trees than in human beings. 
The dangerous thing about his kind is not their weird views on wolves, that’s just nonsense.
It is what he said about the way of life that has kept people in the glens and on the islands for years that is deadly.
According to this honourable gentleman the financial support for crofters to keep sheep is a “perverse subsidy”.
More nutrients would be kept in the soil without the sheep.
No doubt that’s the argument the wolf would use too.
Here’s my advice - leave the wolves to imagination and stamp hard in the views of these false conservationists.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Life in Wonderland - Corbyn's conference speech

For the Daily Record

Party conferences are locked-off, Alice in Wonderland places cut off from the real world.

If someone arrives from outside declaring  scientists have found life-giving water on Mars, delegates shrug their shoulders at the irrelevance of the news.

Conferences are altered reality, where anything can happen. That's why Jeremy Corbyn's first speech to the Labour conference was such a barnstormer in the hall. 

In here the drumbeat of socialist principles, the defiant challenge to Tory austerity, and the promise of a different way of doing politics drew ovation after ovation

The trouble is that as the testament of the Islington messiah reaches the outside world voters may shrug their shoulders collectively in return.

This was a speech aimed at soothing a bruised party, not convincing a sceptical voter who blames Labour for the economic crash

In his comfort zone it was a warm and witty speech, a wish list for a kinder world that offered few solutions to hard choices of the real world. We can assume these will be sent to policy reviews.

At its core was nothing less than a challenge to the historic order of capitalism. That passage turned out to be a rethread of a speechwriter's script that Ed Miliband rejected in 2011.

On issues he is passionate about, the injustice of poverty, the despot Saudi regime, the rhetoric  drew on Corbyn's own leadership speeches, but was not quite so mediocre as they were.

On Scotland it was a tick box affair, reading the lines from an unfamiliar autocue and what sounded like the script direction - "strong message here" - as he promised Labour would be back as the fighting force it once was. Not much for Nicola Sturgeon to lose sleep over.

He insisted on taking Trident out of the box that the party boss, sorry Unite union boss Len McCluskey, packed it into earlier in the week. Labour may not be debating Trident renewal yet but Corbyn insisted his mandate to is to scrap it and that means there will be division down the road. 

Though he submitted to convention and wore a tie, awkwardly, Corbyn clearly thinks he has changed the rules of politics.

In conventional terms he does not work, an unspun politician,  unstructured speeches, policy discussions not proclamations, it just shouldn't fly in a 24/7 news cycle and a digital world. 

But he told the media it is they who are on the wrong page. 

"No, media commentariat you've got it wrong," he declared, and that telt us. 

Much of the media has already dismissed this rebel who came in from the allotment as a disaster for Labour who will not connect with the public. 

But there is a Corbyn effect out there,  160,000 new members have signed up. He is reaching out with the Good Samaritan politics of kindness.

The speech played to his strengths, his unorthodox approach to politics and defiance of the accepted style of business.

But conventionally voters like leaders to have other strengths, to take decisions not seek compromises, and to be trusted with the economy.  

The political village cannot decide if Corbyn has genuinely tapped the anti-politics mood or how deep that well is. In Wonderland it is hard to tell.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Corbyn connects, but can he reach out in Scotland?

The lesson from that phenomenal result - Corbyn connects.

Certainly he does in the Labour party where six in ten members backed him as their first choice.

That is a call for a different way of doing politics and for a different Labour Party.

A mandate like that is unassailable from within and resistant to the many setbacks and traps external opponents will put in the way of the new Labour leader.

It’s clear now that this summer politics in the left in Britain has undergone the same transformation as the nationalist politics in Scotland experienced last year.

Defeat has spurred political activists to express their core values, nationalism in Scotland, socialism within the Labour party.

The anti-politics surge that gifted the SNP with over 100,000 members after the referendum has left Labour with over 500,000 across the UK.

But be careful, the SNP membership still outnumbers Labour by five to one in Scotland.

Will Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-establishment credentials, his principled socialism and left-wing values connect with voters better than Nicola Strugeon’s assured, groomed and polished nationalist operation?

Although amazed by the result Corbyn looks like taking leadership in same straight-talking style as he won the contest with.

Mind you, it was noticeable that his powerful victory speech was aimed at the Labour support in the hall and not at the TV nation looking in who he must introduce himself to connect to with the same vigour.

In Scotland the test of Corbynism will be if his policies pull back votes from the SNP.

If they do not then what is happening in Scotland is not about politics at all, it is all about identity.